Thursday, June 04, 2009

Wanting Mo Moab

Wanting Mo Moab: [[Update: Photos now available at Smugmug - dam]] My trip to Moab started propitiously when my upgrade to First Class, thanks to US Airways Dividend Miles, allowed me to bypass interminable lines in Detroit at both check-in and security. The flights to Salt Lake City went smoothly and were on time (sadly this luck didn't hold up on the way home, see next post) and in no time I was at the counter for Advantage Rental Car getting set for my 4+ hour drive to Moab.

(Note to self: In the absence of a direct flight to Salt Lake City, it's better to fly direct into Denver and take the six hour drive to Moab rather than waste two or three hours and risk delays on an indirect flight to Salt Lake City.)

Advantage Car Rental is a fairly inexpensive regional rental firm mostly operating in the Southwest states, but they are at least as big a mess as any of the majors -- long lines and employees trying to do simultaneously deal with complaints, answer phones, and get novice customers to understand the excruciatingly complicated details of renting a car. Experienced renters can get this done very quickly. We know to reserve online ahead of time; we know to reject to additional coverage because we use our American Express cards; we know to say, "I'll return it full" in response to questions about gas. If you haven't paid your travel dues, coming to terms with the questions and decisions involved in this process can take a half hour easy. Couple that with answering phone calls from archaic types who can't look things up on the Web and the one or two clerks trying to man the counters are completely overwhelmed by the fifteen or twenty people in line. Some companies have kiosks and "Gold" memberships and such to speed things along for those of us who know what we are doing, but in my experience such features are not available or available but not working about 50% of the time. Car Rental companies are at least as mismanaged as airlines, suffer the same cost pressures, and have the same affinity for nickels and dimes.

The travel industry is hell. The word "travel" is actually a contraction of the phrase "travails in hell". (I just made that up.)

I did not intentionally rent a Chrysler Aspen. I did intentionally rent an SUV because a) I planned on renting a bike and I needed to carry it around and b) I know from experience that travels out west sometimes offer off-road opportunities. The Aspen just happened to be what they had. It was not necessarily the best vehicle for those purposes. Oh, it had the room to easily transport a mountain bike and it had the clearance to handle a bump or two, but this class of vehicle's true purpose is as a replacement for the old land yachts of old; spiritual successor to the giant tail-finned behemoths that trolled the open byways in days of yore. Barcalounger seating, tiller-based steering, zero input required or feedback delivered. It did have one feature new to me -- a back up camera. Shift into reverse and the radio display turned into a video screen displaying what was behind you and beeped furiously if it sensed you were about to back into something. Previously I would have snorted at this as frivolous techno-bling, but it's actually pretty cool and useful, and would succeed in breaking me of the habit of looking behind me as I was backing up, thus making me a parking lot menace in a car that didn't have it.

Longtime readers are familiar with my habit of starting a travel post and getting 500 words deep before I get to writing about the actual destination. I shall get to it now.

Moab. Moab is one of the most remarkable places on Earth. It is a point at which numerous outdoor activities conflate into a complete full-service wilderness playground. Moab proper is not a big place. There is one main street, called Main Street, and most of the businesses are on or within a block of it. What might be called the downtown area runs a couple of miles along this strip. Throw in the surrounding residential areas and that's all there is. Moab exists for what surrounds it. Within easy reach are hiking, camping, rock climbing, river rafting and kayaking, 4wd off-roading (jeep, motorcycle, or ATV), the absolute ultimate in mountain biking, and even cross-country skiing in winter. I could not reliably count the National Parks, Nation Forests, National Monuments, State Parks, and other forms of protected wilderness all within a couple of hours. I knowingly visited four National Parks and certainly passed by or drove through several others. If you like the outdoors there is no place like Moab.

I sailed into Moab around dusk and pulled into the Silver Sage Motel -- basic accommodations but clean, functional and well maintained. Mini-fridge and microwave and free (and working) wi-fi, which is more than you can say for many a Ritz Carlton. At check-in the proprietor asked if I was there to play, which is the sort of thing you would ask in Moab. After getting settled in I wandered down the street to yet another Moab gem: The Moab Brewery.

I'm guessing a fair amount of beer is consumed in Moab in general. I know for most people, after a day of vibrant activity in the desert heat, there is little more satisfying than an ice cold beer. Moab Brewery fills the bill with their home grown ales. I highly recommend the Scorpion Ale. It is truly awesome, with a dry and hoppy bite. Moab Brewery also has delicious food.

Next morning, bright and early I was crawling my way up the steep, winding road through Arches National Park where, as you might guess, you can see lots of arches. A friend of mine proclaimed Arches to be the most beautiful of the parks and I wouldn't disagree. It is a red rock jamboree of enormous formations, surreal in their seeming defiance of physics. A good starter hike is through a demi-canyon called Park Avenue. An accurate description since it's the same visceral feeling you can get strolling between Manhattan skyscrapers, especially in the way you move through shadows and sunlight.

The paradigm hike in Arches in the one to Delicate Arch. It has to be one of the most photographed places in the world, although the hike there is not for the sedentary. It's only about a mile and a half, but the trip in is mostly uphill and follows some twists and turns and maneuvering along narrow cliff edges. It's not dangerous, nor does it require any special level of fitness to complete, but an aged, arthritic bus tourist is going to struggle to do the three miles round trip and will want to leave a lot of cushion for rest stops.

The best time to see Delicate Arch, I am told, is at sunset, so naturally I was there in the morning. One thing I was quite surprised about was that there was no restriction on actually walking right up to and climbing on the arch itself. Walking to it from the observation ledge requires a bit of rock hopping and walking across seriously sloped cliff which, were you to slip and fall from, would drop you many feet onto solid rock. Still, it's not a big deal to stride right up to the arch, pose for stupid pictures, try to tip it over, or do whatever.

I was fortunate to have been there in the AM. The only other folks there were a German couple (the park was crawling with Krauts for some reason) and who were just admiring the view, thus enabling me to take a bunch of decent photos. The timing was auspicious since only a few minutes later the peace was shattered by family after family; the types that could only speak to each other by screeching, everybody taking turns getting their pictures taken, then groups pictures, then every combination of each other, then pictures of the real live Germans. I would have been annoyed if I didn't already have the pictures I wanted. I can't imagine what it must be like at sunset when it's busy.

Beauty aside, Arches is about the perfect park for visitors. There are plenty of views, observation stops, and rock attractions that are pretty much a short stroll from your car, combined with several stunning but short hikes -- say 1-3 miles -- such that you can knock off 2 or 3 in the course of a day. I probably hiked a total of 10 miles combined and it was great to not have any segment turn into an endurance test.

And I can't overemphasize how beautiful the place is. It falls short of Bryce Canyon for Total Landscape Outrage. It's not as gobsmacking as Monument Valley (coming later). But it has a certain elegance that none of the others has. This is clearly not lost on the world at large because as I was passing it on my way home from Moab on a Saturday the line of cars to get in was staggering. I also feel the need to re-iterate that if you are a lifelong Easterner or City Slicker and you have never seen the vastness of the Western mountain or desert regions, you are really missing something. Words and pictures don't compare, although I believe I took in excess of 200 pictures that day -- a personal record.

Although there is much in close proximity to Moab, a day trip brings even more adventure in range. I took two, the first of which was to Mesa Verde, just over the Colorado border down near the Four Corners area. As you cross the border into Colorado the landscape turns from red rock to pine green. Mesa Verde, in fact, translates to Green Table. It is an elevated forested plateau. The park itself is famous for one thing: cliff dwellings.

The cliff dwellings are fascinating in a way. They look like something George Lucas might have invented for some scene on an alien outpost in the galactic hinterlands. The ranger tour ($3) was informative and it's a must since it's the only way to get up close and walk through the primary dwelling area, otherwise you are just viewing them from overlooks (there are some lesser dwellings that you can walk through on your own).

It turns out, the cliff dwellings were more than just homesteads. They served as administrative facilities, places to store food, and social and religious centers, and trading posts for tribes of the entire region. That's pretty impressive and, speaking as someone who has been consistently down on what is popularly referred to as Native American culture -- or more specifically, the shallow new-age image of noble savages living serenely in tune with their spirit guides -- it caused me to rethink a number of my criticisms.

It is to the credit of the rangers that they do not attempt to build an idyllic picture of happy Indians living as one with nature in the circle of life. They basically dumped all their trash just a few yards outside their front door. They seemed to simply accept that the place would burn to the ground now and then without making much effort to build any facility to protect themselves from fire. And in the end, for reasons we don't know, they seem to have just picked up and left one day. Buh-bye. Also interestingly, when these dwellings were first spotted by keemo-sabee in the 1870s they were in severe disrepair. The local Natives apparently found no interest in this part of their heritage because they were fine to just let them crumble away; it was up to the white man to restore them.

But the dwellings do indicate that there was a certain complexity to Indian culture that I had not appreciated before. It could be that there was a lot more going on than I previously thought. Perhaps there was even some sort of more advanced philosophy or art occurring. On the other hand, that can never be anying more than speculation since they never bothered to write anything down. It's hard to see much beyond primitivism in a culture without writing.

Unique among the parks discussed here, Mesa Verde has a restaurant. Well, actually it's more of a cafeteria of sorts, but the food is decent and there's outdoor seating so you can kick back and enjoy something more than half a bag of stale, gift shop trail mix and a bottle of water. There are a couple of short hikes along the canyon, but most everything else is right outside your car. Mesa Verde is certainly worth the visit, especially on a recovery day, when you need activity to be low.

Day three, park three: Canyonlands, is the other one in close proximity to Moab. Like Arches, Canyonlands is correctly named. It is simply a gigantic amalgamation of canyons and mesas and such, all carved by the Colorado River or its immediate tributaries. Canyonlands is also huge; so much so that it is divided into three segments: Islands in the Sky, Needles, and Maze. All have separate and distant entrances and each could be classified a park in itself. Although the Islands in the Sky and Needles sections have the standard paved roads through them leading to overlook and trailheads, Canyonlands is equally geared towards multi-day trekking and 4WD safari-ing. The Maze section is the most remote. I believe you need a 4WD just to get around in it and in general, you do not visit the Maze area for less than a three-day stretch and more likely a full week full of camping and hiking. It's where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid tried to escape their pursuers (in real life not in the movie).

The most user friendly section is Islands in the Sky, which, of all the National Parks I've visited, gets the title of Best Scenery Yet. Deep winding switchback canyons animated by the river running through it. Tangled messes of complex rock formations. Even beyond that, along the trails there are countless rock ledges simply screaming "I dare you to walk on me." I am amazed people don't plunge to their deaths daily. There was a pack of middle-schoolers scurrying about, many of whom looked ripe for an accidental plunge.

I was able to hit all the major overlooks and hiking trails in Islands in the Sky, and got to one of the road endings at Upheaval Dome when the rain hit. No, not rain -- hail. It had been 90 degrees the day before and now I was racing to my truck, dodging the bitter cold, freezing, stinging hail, trying to use my body as a shield for my Nikon. It didn't last too long, but it was overcast the rest of the day and on-and-off rain was the theme of the rest of the trip.

There is an off-road shortcut from Islands in the Sky back to Moab called Shafer Trail. It's a white knuckle descent out of the mesas then runs along the very rim of the deep Colorado River canyon. According to park service it is high clearance 2WD, with 4WD strongly recommended when wet. I had planned to take it back to Moab, but that was when I realized my truck was not 4WD. Great. Since when do SUVs not get 4WD? I probably would have been fine, but I was hungry and tired and I figured I'd have plenty of opportunities before I left.

Back in Moab I tried the other brewpub in town -- Eddie McStiffs. Had my first encounter with needing to sign up for a club to get a drink. In Utah, they have various forms of liquor licenses, all are available in limited numbers and some are harder to get than others. One such license is a "Private Club". Anyone can come in and sit down, but if you want a drink you have to pay the fee to join the private club. They take your name and signature, not checking if it is real of not -- you could write in anything you want, in my case Foghorn Leghorn -- and charge you $4 for membership, then they subtract $4 from your bill. It's a goofy formality required to conform to the letter of the law but still serve alcohol to the general public, all in the name of liquor control. The silliest thing ever. (I believe this silliness goes away in July of this year.) It would be tempting to snicker at Utah for this, but every State has its own bit of silliness. On the other hand, there are few places as cool and well functioning as Utah. Whatever works is fine with me.

Eddie McStiffs had decent Pizza and substandard ale. Nothing bad, just nothing special.

Day four: At this point I was burnt out of exquisite views and natural beauty. Today: no parks, no photos. Today: Rent a mountain bike and hit some of the trails around here. Moab is famous in mountain biking circles. There is no better place, and the ne plus ultra of trails is called Slickrock Trail. What El Capitan is to rock climbers and The Pipeline is to surfers, Slickrock Trail is to mountain bikers. If you have done Slickrock Trail you are a serious mountain biker.

I have not done Slickrock Trail. I was wise enough to not even attempt it, which you already know because I am here writing this and not in a coma from a head injury. But even the intermediate trails around Moab are insane. Riding along the edge of cliffs. Zig-zagging downhills over giant boulders. Lung-busting climbs through sand. (For those of you familiar with the Moab area, I spent the day on the MOAB Brand trails.) Though I would call myself an advanced-beginner/early-intermediate level biker, I was trying the "difficult" trails because, well, how often am I going to get this opportunity? I'm lucky I only fell once. The rest of the time I did a lot of flailing around and screaming (but not a girly scream).

Perhaps I am being a bit too self-effacing. I didn't do too bad. There was only one descent I didn't attempt at all -- a particularly terrifying multi-switchback single-track that ran in between boulders large enough to obscure the trail more than a few feet ahead. More importantly, there were a few times I was able to barrel over these rocky outcrops or fly through a roller coaster turn like a pro, which made the whole adventure totally worthwhile. It was a blast. Mountain biking makes me feel like I was when I was a kid on my bike, when obstacles were opportunities for fun and crashing was just another form of entertainment.

The most frightening point came towards then end when I was almost back to my truck and riding past this cheesy-looking old-time cowboy chuckwagon and these vicious dogs started chasing me. I didn't think I could pedal that fast through deep sand. Stupid Utah cur.

Day five and another need for some recovery. This time a day trip down to Monument Valley. Monument Valley is on the very southern edge of Utah just north of the Arizona border in Navajo country. If you have ever seen an old Howard Hawks film starring John Wayne, with The Duke riding off into the sunset with a panoramic view of the old west, chances are it was shot at Monument Valley.

Monument Valley is filled with enormous red rock monoliths. Yes, you've heard that before, but in Monument Valley, the stone towers are that much bigger. Not only that, they are just sparsely spread enough over the flat desert floor that the effect is jaw dropping, like a Zen rock garden for the Gods. Visions and images of Monument Valley are probably more responsible than anything else for people wanting to "see the West."

Coming from the north you enter Monument Valley proper through the Navajo town of Mexican Hat. There are a couple of little motels and a diner but that's about it. I stopped in the hopes of actually fining a hat that said 'Mexican Hat,' but no go. Between Mexican Hat and the Monument Valley Tribal Park proper is the big tourist center of Goulding. Goulding is a hotel/restaurant/museum/gift shop/tour planning complex, also referred to as a "trading post" for those looking for condescending Indian authenticity. Here you can set up bus tours of the Valley (and horse tours also I think). They are big on John Wayne memorabilia and much of the complex is themed to old Westerns. They appear to do a healthy bit of commerce, which I suppose is the benefit for being honest about what brings the tourists in, as opposed to some contrived Navajo cultural activities.

From Goulding you can head southeast into Arizona to the Tribal Park and see much more of the Valley, but I turned back north. My plan was to take a circuitous route back to Moab that would bring me past Natural Bridges National Monument. Trivia: What's the difference between a natural Bridge and a natural Arch? A bridge is made by water and an arch by wind. Now, amaze your friends with your knowledge.

It turned out I wouldn't get to Bridges, but the scenic drive off Rte 261 is a beauty -- another steep dirt road with 5-mph white knuckle hairpins climbing to give you some astounding panoramas of an area called Valley of the Gods. (There is so much I am just glossing over because there so much that I just glanced at. By this point, I had written off seeing more than the major attractions. You could easily spend months exploring around Utah and not run out of new things to see.)

Anyway, coming back off the scenic drive and on to the highway north I spotted what looked like a dust devil up ahead. As I got closer, I realized that someone had rolled his pickup truck off the road, spewing kayaks, tents, and camping gear all over the highway. The truck was sitting on the passenger side about thrity yards off the road -- it had obviously rolled several times (5 according to the sheriff that eventually showed up).

Looking over I noticed there is a guy hanging out the passenger side window. I pulled off and ran over to see if anyone was hurt. The guy hanging out of the passenger side was unconscious. His skull was completely bashed in. You could see brain. Meanwhile, the driver pulls himself out of his side window and looks down and his friend and cries, "Oh no, he's dead."

Naturally I have no cell signal -- thank you T-mobile. Then this German guy appears (what is it with all these Krauts in Utah?). I immediate ask if he has a signal -- no he doesn't. But he wants to try to tip the truck upright and pull the head injury guy out. Um, not a good idea, Fritz. If we try that the truck will just roll back and crush the guy, never mind how stupid it is to move someone in that condition.

Anyway, it's clear we need help. Fritz says he passed a ranger station on the way there, so I hop in my car and barrel north at about 95 for about five miles to the ranger station to get some help. Except it turns out the rangers at this station are this old retired couple and, while they were very kind people and certainly doing everything they could, let's just say they weren't exactly speedy. Eventually, the wife managed to call the paramedics and the husband got his first aid gear, but admitted that he didn't know to use it. They also didn't have a car available so I drove him back to the scene with me.

By the time we got back to the scene several other cars had stopped -- you pretty much had to or else drive right through the smashed kayaks and mountain bikes on the road. Luckily one of them was a nurse and they seemed to have both the guys resting a little more at ease. And the open-brain guy was talking coherently, which was a shock to me because I thought he was a goner.

It took 45 minutes for the paramedics to arrive -- I did mention it was the middle of nowhere -- the firemen were cutting the roof off the truck to free the guy up and the paramedics took one look at the guy's head and called for chopper evac. It had to be an hour and a half before the guy got flown out.

Needless to say, by the time it was all over, all that was left for me was to head straight back to Moab. As I think back on it, though, the response of everyone involved was pretty impressive. No one panicked. There were probably six or seven folks at the crash site and everyone was very calm and conscious of the need to stay out of the way of people doing work, just clearing paths for when the medics arrived and talking to accident victims. Except for Fritz wanting to tip the truck back over, nobody tried to do anything heroically stupid. Even the driver just calmly and regretfully admitted he fell asleep at the wheel. Just a lot of stoic, responsible, good-hearted folks. My experience in Utah is that it's full of solid people.

And so I was down to my last day. I had two things I wanted to do: 1) Drive Shafer Trail and 2) get back to Delicate Arch for some sunset photos. Instead, I got rain. It was on and off all day, very heavy at times, then the sun would make a brief appearance before ducking behind the clouds again. So instead of my plan I spent the morning doing some urban hiking and trolling about in Moab, getting some photos of the funky outdoor vibe shops and exploring the residential areas and dreaming about possibly buying a little vacation cottage.

After snagging lunch at the Moab Diner where they claim to have the best Green Chile sauce in the world (and they may be right), I wanted to take a shot at one final outdoorsy trek so I headed down scenic Route 128 just north of town which follows the banks of the Colorado. Very impressive. You've seen your Western movie stars navigating the perilous rapids through the rocky wilderness -- once again, that's where you are in real life. At one of the breaks in the rain, I pulled off for a quick canyon hike through -- and I am not making this up -- Negro Bill Canyon. The path runs deep through the canyon along a little stream which it crosses several times, I'd guess a mile or two one way, you have to backtrack out. If this weren't Moab, it would likely be the killer hike in the area, but here it's primarily popular because dogs are permitted, and dogs there are of all shapes and sizes.

And that was that. My hopes of getting some sunset pics of Delicate Arch were dashed by the gray and stormy skies, so I settled for a final Scorpion Ale at Moab Brewery and called it a trip. In the morning, the four-hour drive to Salt Lake City (a beautiful city with a perfect snowcapped mountain backdrop) was followed by a disastrous attempt to fly back to Michigan (see next post).

Still I have Moab on the brain now. It's not unusual for me to get fantasies of buying property at my vacation destinations, but Moab is something a bit more special. Probably because there is so much to do there that even my fantasies wouldn't run out of steam. I could go back and back and not get bored. Probably ever. That's probably the best summation for Moab: If you're bored, you must be dead.