Ten Days of Out Here
Last month, myself and two others took ten days to travel through four of Wyoming and Utah’s signature national parks, sleeping in tents, hiking all day, and living out of my car. Here is a collection of thoughts I had along the way, and what it meant to return home.
Before the trip, I lived by one rule: Stay Out of Wyoming. That’s why I was wary of the eight hour drive westward across its empty, pastured plane, launching a 10-day adventure through four of its surrounding states. It’s hard leaving South Dakota’s Black Hills, my home, in any direction. For once you enter its surrounding grasslands, you wonder if you’ll ever again know elevation. That’s what I would chase on this journey, courtesy of my Hills Kid instincts. If you can’t walk up, hike up. If you can’t hike up, climb up. If you can’t climb up, sit down and look up.
My little hatchback is packed to the ceiling, carrying the supplies of myself and two others: houses (tents), furniture (sleeping bags), food (Garden Salsa Sun Chips) and a few other things that probably should’ve stayed at home (pool tubes). 500 miles, two Maveriks, and one Mexican restaurant later, we escape Wyoming’s eastern prairie, and my car fights the upward grades around Yellowstone Lake, occasionally pausing for bison and geothermal springs. The meadows green, the snow white, the tourists plentiful, my heart anxious.
We spend the first four days in Wyoming’s northwest corner. We set up camp near the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and begin our adventure by ignoring indications to stay off the cliffs overlooking its copper abyss. My love of doing things that would send my Grandma into cardiac arrest outweighs my fear of heights, so, obeying proclivity, I edge around 800-foot drops, toss dead logs to their disintegration on the rock below, and catch disgruntled stares from people in cargo shorts.
The Yellowstone River resembles an irrigation ditch from 1,000 feet above; it’s hard to believe its currents gashed such a ravine in under 15,000 years, and despite its relative newness, hydrothermal alteration rusts the canyon walls, painting them with the same palette as the Arizona state flag. The Lower Falls, the Canyon’s largest, make Old Faithful look like a rotor sprinkler. 64,000 gallons of water careen to the bottom of the canyon every second. Seeing such force numbs the body and adrenaline seeps to thaw it. I’m frozen by a depiction of one of nature’s most important rules: Alive or not, everything obeys water.
Back at Camp, we polish the first bag of Sun Chips and retreat to our tents with oblivious confidence. We think we own the place (respectfully, not to disrupt anyone else’s experience, because we are kind Hills Kids who value nature and appreciate those willing to sacrifice comfort for its reward).
Day Two in Yellowstone taught me that we do not own the place. The National Parks Service has Yellowstone on lock (for good reason). With so many vehicles and so much foot traffic, the park can’t sustain do-what-you-will agendas for its visitors. Instead, Yellowstone is more of an outdoor museum. I drive the loop around the northern part of the park, admiring the hot springs, waterfalls, peaks, animals, and rampant children, all from a safe distance. We sneak in a little hike, a shower, and some hot dogs cooked by firewood scavenged from the forest. The next morning, we head south to the Grand Tetons.
I first need to address my befuddlement with buying pre-packaged firewood in a forest. At a gas station outside of our campground, bundles sat against the store wall for purchase. $5.99 for like, five pieces of wood. And people bought them. Yellowstone states “any dead-and-down material may be used as firewood, but chainsaws are prohibited.” Who, then, is too good to wander out with a hatchet and work for their warmth? Old people? Go ask those kids three sites down who are trying to light chipmunks on fire with a lighter to chop a few logs for you. Rich people? Why did you purchase that $150,000 diesel RV to travel the country if you’re too afraid to wander from pavement? I would include a third demographic but I can’t think of any others who access their firewood with billfolds rather than blades. The Limbless?
Anyway, the Tetons share with Yellowstone nothing but location. Yellowstone is wrought with sub-terrestrial thermodynamics; the Tetons make no attempt to hide. One is densely guarded by the NPS. The other’s watchmen signal to the range’s peaks and say, “Bet you can’t make it to the top.”
Day Four. I wake to snow falling from drab clouds masking the mountain range. June 14th. 28 degrees. I try to make pancakes and create a something that resembles asphalt. We reach Jenny Lake trailhead at 9:30 a.m. and pikas (miniature mountain squirrels) steal almonds from our hands by noon. Where most turn around and loop back to the ferries hauling visitors to the base of the lake, we turn upward and climb the trail to Cascade Canyon, which passes underneath the Grand Teton and Storm Point. When the trail finally levels, we enter a line of trees separating the Teton’s unconstrained Wild from its domesticated regions on the eastern face, and the bowl of mountain we tramp swishes a familiar energy within. Solitude. For the first time on our trip, only the mountains watch me.
“What are the Hills going to be like when we get back?” It’s the question I’d suppressed in my stomach since the cliff shenanigans above the Canyon. I stand at the base of the Grand Teton, which tears through speeding clouds like barbed wire on denim. My elevation is 7,700 ft., just over half the height of the range’s highest peak and 500 ft. taller than Black Elk Peak back home, which I thought scraped the heavens up until now. Distant waterfalls spew from the rocks above. The weather rotates from snow to sleet to sunlight every ten minutes, and my breath is visible when I’m not trying to catch it or my surroundings aren’t stealing it. I have no idea what I’ll think of the Hills when I return.
We hike for 15 miles and ship back to Camp before dark, at the base of Signal Mountain. Our British Columbian neighbors arrive at their campsite shortly after, and in the spirit of Canada, offer us firewood, chairs, and company. We accept.
The couple have thirty years on us and spent the day on the same trail as we — they went two miles further. Rhonda is a retired dental hygienist with a soft voice and quick tongue. Her husband, Ned, spent his life on the Trans-Canada Railway; he looks the type who’s seen some shit. They’ve dedicated their retirement to travel in a 20-foot RV, accompanied by their 19 year-old dog, Vixen, who has one blue eye and one brown eye and is perfect.
After sleeping through another sub-freezing night, I make coffee and say goodbye to Rhonda and Ned in the morning, despite a strange longing to be their neighbors forever. Rhonda leaves me with haunting advice: “Be careful, the only downside to traveling is catching The Bug and never wanting to return home.”
Before we leave, she offers us oatmeal, because Canada. I jot down on a sticky note: “There is a 100 mile stretch in Wyoming that makes up for the rest of it.” We pack up my car Tetris-style for the dozenth time and turn south to Utah for the latter part of our trip.
We stay in Salt Lake City that night, but the only part I want to talk about is a public event we attend called Yappy Hour. Yappy Hour is a massive dog soiree held in a park north of downtown. Aromas from food trucks and music from a band imbue over hundreds of people sipping on local brews. It’s a middle-aged Eden. But then there are dogs. So many dogs. They run. They sit. They bark. They drool. It’s beautiful. Some don’t leave the sides of their owners. Others crowd surf through the park, looking for more pets — both types. German Shepherds hunt aerial tennis balls. A chihuahua sizes up a St. Bernard. A Boxer tries humping both. We stand in the middle of the “no-leash zone” and wade in a flood of fur, like interstate traffic cones as canines speed by. My cheeks tire from smiling. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve ever enjoyed a public park. Yappy Hour ends at 9:00, but it’s 15 minutes past and there are no signs of slowing down. However, we are, and we return to our abode to sleep on a mattress for the first time in five days.
Day Six. I try to make pancakes again. They’re edible this time but must be eaten from a bowl with a spoon. We trek six more southbound hours through Utah and arrive at the gates of Zion National Park before sunset.
This is my first time in a desert and I feel like Matt Damon in The Martian. Zion’s innards jut and dive, wind and slice. The rock wears a mahogany finish and oozes caramel latitudinally. Carved deep within the Earth, its features feel unearthly. We drive the highway where cars are allowed, pass through a mile-long tunnel woven into the side of a chasm, and hike the Canyon Overlook Trail.
At the top, we sit and watch the sky blend with sediment as the sun floats below the canyon’s edge. Bighorn Sheep stroll past, unbothered by the cliffgoers. We leave as the sky darkens, set up camp on another cliff overlooking the Virgin River twenty minutes from the park, finish our third bag of SunChips, and don’t bundle up for bed.
If Yellowstone National Park were a principal’s office, Zion National Park would be Guantanamo. To get a free parking spot inside of the park, we wake at 6:30 a.m. and reach the entrance before 8:00, 15 minutes before the lot fills (those who arrive late must pay to park in Springdale, a town a few miles from the gates). Zion NPS offers a single mean of reaching the park’s notable destinations: shuttle. A 90-minute wait in line and a 45-minute shuttle ride lead us to the rear of the park, The Temple of Sinawava, where, at 10:30, we finally start our jaunt through The Narrows.
Sidenote: There are 9 stops along the shuttle route with exotic names like Court of the Patriarchs, The Grotto, Weeping Rock, and The Temple of Sinawava. Way cooler than Decent View Peak, Meh Point, Are We There Yet Overlook, or Where Is The Closest Bathroom Canyon.
The Narrows is a massive arroyo assembled by striped rock and a shin-high stream that runs south. There is no trail; hundreds of hikers wade upstream like hypnotized serpents slithering toward the notes of a snake charmer’s flute. Outside of Yappy Hour, it’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced.
Someone nearby made a point in the Tetons that proved itself most truthful in The Narrows: “There are three types of hikers: those with $200 hiking boots and Patagonia everything, those in street clothes who look like they haven’t hiked a day in their life, and hippies.”
It’s fun to see the ways visitors attack this hike. Many wear high-top hiking boots and waterproof wool socks, some of which are rented from the Visitor’s Center. These same people are the type in Long Johns, hiking shorts, waterproof vests, North Face bucket hats, and customized walking sticks similar to ski poles. On the opposite end of the spectrum are others that stride in flip-flops and haul drawstring bags that were probably handed out for free at a state fair. I removed my socks and did fine in waterlogged Nikes. Nature doesn’t care about capitalism (except when capitalism tears down its forests and poisons its streams).
After three hours in The Narrows, we catch a shuttle back to The Grotto, where Angel’s Landing trailhead, the most popular point in Zion, lies. To reach it, we must first endure Walter’s Wiggles, a climb of 21 switchbacks that make me want to lie in the dirt and weep. Seven people have died hiking Angel’s Landing since 2004, but hundreds more have wished for death hiking the Wiggles. After conquering the will-shattering Wiggles, we are met with Angel’s life-threatening Landing. There’s no real trail, just a set of chains suggesting the path where one is least likely to plummet to their death. I gently foot my way to the top of the ridge, and finally, my skin radiant with sweat… I see the actual hike to Angel’s Landing.
My stomach curls at the sight and I unconsciously mutter “Oh **** that.”
“That’s what I said!” says an older lady sitting on a rock behind me, whom I did not notice when I first saw the cause of my future death.
Before the chain, a sign warns hikers who have a fear of heights to pass on this one. Say no more. I gaze at the steep, thin dais which supervises the canyon. It looks like God cut a tall, skinny slice of red velvet cake and molded it into the ground. I’ve contemplated many hikes, and turned down few, but this hike is the first that’s made me think about my family and what they’d do if they learned their brother/son/grandson misstepped on a rocky spine and free-fell a thousand feet into Zion’s canyon trying to look cool. I decline and attempt to control my breathing.
I admire the view for some time before aching back down Wiggles. We shuttle back to my car, gorge ourselves with pizza, shower in a weird basement, and fall asleep underneath a starry desert sky.
We spend the next day driving to Arches National Park. We find a camping spot on the bank of the Colorado River, take a dip, and sleep in tents for the final time. It’s a humid 95 degrees at midnight. I lie on top of my sleeping bag in nothing but boxers and drip with sweat as I doze off. Oddly enough, I miss the cold. I am not a desert boy.
Day Nine blesses me with overcast, dropping the temperature from 103℉ the previous day to a cool 84℉ today. The first hike is to Delicate Arch, the featured arch on Utah’s license plate. The hike is an easy 20-minute upward walk, and when I climb into the bowl where the arch stands, I am more interested in the line of people waiting to get their picture taken under the arch than the arch itself. It looks like a book signing or a meet and greet, which is probably why the Arch is always frowning. A man offers to take a picture of us if we take pictures of his family, and that’s how I got a picture with the Delicate Arch at a meet and greet.
We drive back south through the park and stop at The Windows, a collection of arches overlooking the eroded bronze landscape. The Windows offer colorful and vibrant sights, full of life and energy, and can’t help but make me smile. I’m talking about old Asian women. Old-Asian-woman-tourists are the pinnacle of travel and should have free entry to every national park. I encountered many over the last week, usually arriving by bus, equipped with flashy scarves, giant floppy hats, clean and pressed outfits, and a strut to remind everyone that they were the real sight — not some waterfall or canyon or mountain or arch.
More importantly, they exude an uplifting energy. As I stroll from the North Window to the South, we pass a group of maybe ten taking pictures of the South Window. Actually, nine of them are taking pictures of the South Window while one of them stands in front, changing poses (smile, finger on hat, hands on hips, bum slightly out, look back at it) every few seconds. I couldn’t understand what the nine photographers were saying, apart from one use of ‘sista’, but I knew that they were just gassing her up. This lady was on top of the world, making fragile pieces of naturally-sculpted sandstone look like house decor. Not one acknowledged me and I still had urges to swing my hips with my stride and cock my head up and to the right as we passed.
I walk back to my car behind two of the fly-est Asian grandmothers I’ve ever seen — silk scarves blowing in the breeze, leather fanny packs, khakis free of a wrinkle (even when they stepped, somehow) above spotless white Adidas sneakers. It’s the last noteworthy thing I see in Utah before departing from the state and my time as a Person of the Wild.
We stop in Denver for two days and return to Rapid City, where I sleep for fourteen hours straight. Ten days, 3,000 miles of driving, 70 miles of hiking, and four bags of Sun Chips all K.O.-ing my body as I hit my pillow.
As hard as it was to come home, a small part of me waited patiently, not just for daily showers and mattresses, but to see what the Hills felt like after everything I’d coursed, like I pondered in the Tetons.
A few days ago, I ventured to Spearfish to find 11th Hour Gulch, a short hike inside Spearfish Canyon. The hike, which took longer to find than to climb, hides in a bend off the highway between a break in the canyon. Inside, a small stream runs to the road, and moss lining the canyon drips moisture into it. I clamber over a bed of rock, balance on logs, and climb a homemade ladder to reach the top. It takes 10 minutes. The cliff offers a view of the surrounding forest, and I sit on a slab of limestone to observe the stretch.
A strange peacefulness comes over me, one that had eluded me in my time away. I’m alone. No one knows I’m here. No one cares much where I am. I have no itinerary for the next few hours, no places I must explore or things I must do.
The New World Encyclopedia says the Black Hills are “something of a geological anomaly — described as an ‘island of trees in a sea of grass.’” They’re not a Wonder of the World, but seem to have sprouted in the prairie by accident, got comfortable, and stayed. Yes, they’re beautiful and hide numerous pleasantries within their shield of pines. But that’s not where the magic spurs from. The Black Hills, my Black Hills, are magical because, unlike Yellowstone and the Tetons and Zion and Arches, they are not a destination. They are a home. Our home.
As a Hills Kid, I am not a visitor here. I’m an inhabitant. And I belong to the Hills as much as they belong to me.
That’s why, atop 11th hour gulch, I threw my hammock on two pines, crept in, and peeked to make sure no one had parked near my hatchback. The Travel Bug would soon bite again, but for the time being, I let a leg hang out as the warm breeze rocked me to sleep.