American Cathedrals

Arches National Park

I’d love to say that with a new lease on life, today was the Best Day Ever but the 7 1/2 mile hike into Devil’s Playground left me wondering if I was quite done being punished by the universe for yesterday’s faux pas. By virtue of an angry universe or good old Murphy’s law, a storm rolled in right when I’d reached the furthest point from the trailhead. Further, actually, as I’d hiked out past the end of the trail to an enticing rocky outcrop. As I was looking out over the hoodoos and cliffs, feeling the rush of being alone in the wilderness, the sky started to grow scarily dark. I hoisted myself up the first big rock that led me back to the trail and stared up at the next. Huh. How did I get down that? The rock was as tall as I was and unapologetically vertical. Thunder echoed through the canyon and a few drops of rain hit the brim of my hat. I’d left my bag with my phone and whistle in it a hundred meters back toward the tail when it began to affect my balance on the rocks and if the thunder got much louder I had no hope of being heard calling for help. I took a deep breath. I’d been through worse. Just last night, as a matter of fact. I summoned all of my strength and heaved myself up the rock face, clutching to it with every fiber of my being. I slid off like a water drop on a pane of glass. I tried again. Don’t let go, don’t let go, don’t let go, I told myself. Five minutes later my shins were bleeding freely and I’d slammed my useless, dime sized knee caps straight into the boulder twice but I was back on the trail!

The view from my stuck spot. I was sitting on a rock formation that mirrored the one in the center. Nowhere to go but back where you came from.

I wasn’t on the trail for long before I realized that I was walking in circles. I wasn’t the only one, either. I could hear a family calling out for a lost tribe member: “Juan! Juan!” I kept my eyes peeled but there was no sign of Juan or his family. Devil’s Playground indeed.

I found my way back to the trail just as the rain gave way to sun and blistering heat. After a half hour of cursing the rain and replaying in my mind what one of the rangers had said about how the rocks have so much iron in them that they conduct electricity for quite some distance if lightning strikes, I now had something other than second hand electrocution to worry about. I now began to doubt that I had enough water with me to make it to the end of the trail. I felt like Goldilocks searching for juuuuust the right amount of water. But where drinkable water was lacking, beauty abounded, including my favorite arch to date, Landscape Arch:

As I stood in awe of the arch I thought back on my evening at Capitol Reef. Whatever the cost of attendance (read: my future happiness), I had learned a lot during the ranger talk, including the fact that the national parks were conceived of as America’s Cathedrals, the natural wonders that would be the American equivalent of the great cathedrals of Europe. Having barely survived the previous night at Arches and having been in many European cathedrals, I can honestly say that I’ve never felt closer to the gods than I did last night in the parking lot of The Windows.

When I finally made it back to the trailhead I was hot, dusty, dehydrated, and utterly exhausted. I decided that it was time to take a break from the rather intense, let’s say, spirituality of park life and head into Moab for lunch.

Oh, sweet civilization. A beer, a makeshift icepack from a kindly bartender, and food that isn’t rice cakes and cold soup really does wonders for a person. I watched the Olympics for the first time this year, which put my bleeding shins and banged up knees in perspective. Still, I was sorely tempted to forego any more of Arches and just drive out to Canyonlands for a good night’s sleep but Jean-Luc had sworn by Delicate Arch at sunset and last night’s warning from on high about taking Jean-Luc’s offers and advice for granted was still emblazoned on the insides of my eyelids.

As far as I could tell, Arches and I have rather oppositional world views. I believe in peace and quiet; Arches believes sneaking up behind you and screaming thunderously in your ear. I believe in shady, pine scented hikes; Arches believes you should hike with a foam pad to protect you from being electrocuted from the ground up. I believe in rocks I can stand on; Arches believes in rocks that stand higher than me. Needless to say, Arches had not been one of my favorite parks up to this point. The hike to Delicate Arch made a convert out of me. It’s probably one of the top ten most stunning hikes of my life. Being an atheist, it’s hard to know who to give thanks to in an American cathedral so I turned my gaze skyward and whispered thanks to both the universe and Jean-Luc for giving me the push I needed to get here today.

As Jean-Luc had said, it wasn’t just the arch itself but the community around it that made this experience special. The hike up was filled with the chatter of happy tourists and the arch sits opposite an amphitheater that was packed with viewers at sunset. I’m not usually one for crowded hikes but there was something deeply life-affirming about sitting around watching the earth spin with a bunch of bubbly, outdoorsy folks from all over the world. And the arch is nothing to sneeze it. In fact, you really shouldn’t sneeze near it because it truly is pretty delicate. Part of the reason you have to hike to it is that the rumble of cars might just reduce it to a pile of rubble.

On the way down, a woman stopped me to say “I saw you setting out and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make it but then I noticed your knee braces and I thought, ‘if she can do it, I can do it!’.” This is not the first time I’ve been told that this summer. This is what Cathedrals are all about, I think: being so inspired by your surroundings that you can then inspire faith in fellow travelers. I soon met another fellow traveler in the form of a fox who was padding down the rocks next to the trail. We stared each other down, feeling, I think, a certain kinship. The fox broke first and I headed down the last leg of the hike with stars and the silhouetted mountains vying for my attention. The drive to the next park was only an hour but after a sleepless night and a hot, hike-heavy day, the cool night breeze on my face and my determination to make the most out of Park Blitz 2016 were the only thing keeping me going.

I rose the next morning to see sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, trying not to think too much about how long it would be until the next time I could sleep. Canyonlands is divided into three separate sections: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. Each has a separate entrance that is at least a two hour drive from the next. No one said Park Blitz was going to be easy, I think. Still, I knew I was choosing quantity over quality time by virtue of how many parks I planned on seeing in half a week so, staying true to form, I decided that rather than trying to see all three sections of Canyonlands today I would spend the morning at Island in the Sky and then drive to Colorado to see a national park that wasn’t on my original list. There was something in the wind that was telling me to see this park and if I’d learned nothing else this week it was to lean in closely when the universe whispers.

Mesa Arch

Determined to make the most of Canyonlands in a scant morning, I hiked to a place called Upheaval Dome to see a geological “huh” of unknown origin. Maybe it was pushed upward, maybe it was pulled down, no one seems to know. As I stood contemplating the mysteries of the natural world, I was brought back to the present moment by the screech of an eagle, the first I’d ever heard. Chills went down my spine. I listened to it’s cry echo through the land as it flew further into the distance and could be heard no more. For the millionth time this summer I was heart achingly grateful that we have national parks to protect and provide for native animals. Shaking off goosebumps, I hiked down the trail and found a promising lookout point to stop at for breakfast. I ate my morning rice cakes and peanut butter while looking out over these lands of canyonness and singing The Circle of Life in my head until I realized that I wasn’t so much singing in my head as out loud and off key. It’s probably worth mentioning that at this point I’d slept less than eight hours in the last three nights combined. I glanced behind me to see an elderly couple looking pointedly in another direction and I decided to make coffee a priority when I left the park.

Upheaval Dome
Breakfast sing-a-long Spot

Highly caffeinated, I arrived at my whim park- Black Canyon of the Gunnison- by mid-afternoon. I hadn’t even heard of Black Canyon of the Gunnison until this Summer but it was immediately apparent why the universe had whispered of it. The park is green and lush, the hiking steep and rocky, and a family of partridges was clucking away by the side of the road. It had the enormity of Capitol Reef, the verdancy of the Smokies, and the light quality of Sedona. The corners of my overtired lips began to creep upward.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

I opened up a can of summer corn and one of kidney beans for lunch down by the emerald green river that runs along the canyon floor. Peregrine falcons soared above and disappeared in a hidden corner of the park. A ranger later told me that the babies from the spring had only just begun to fly on their own that week.

The canyon walls were so high that two Empire State Buildings, one on top of the other, would barely reach the rim of the canyon. I felt infinitesimally small as my gaze traveled up the cliffs.

At a nearby picnic table there was a gang of bikers and a family that consisted of parents, grandparents, a toddler, and a sullen teenager in a(n original) ghostbusters shirt. I was glad to see that the universe whispered of Black Canyon to an eclectic mix of people. Later in the day I met a girl named Gabriella who was an elementary school teacher spending her summer traveling the country so she could better talk about it to her students.

“Are you traveling alone?” She asks me, her eyes lighting up.
“Yes,” I say.
“Me too! But I don’t usually tell people that. Do you tell people that?”
“Yes,” I say. “If they ask.”
“Oh, you’re much braver than me. One woman said I shouldn’t tell anyone I’m traveling alone as a woman.”

I feel sad that we live in a world where that’s the advice given to solo, female travelers. Shouldn’t it just be, “Enjoy the world!” or “Report back soon!”?

Apparently Black Canyon is a mecca for solo travelers because a few minutes later we’d met two more. Well, two more former solo travelers. They’d started out adventuring alone but had been traveling together for the last few days. As we all got to know each other, an older couple from New England joined the conversation, then a man who lives in Arizona, and by the time we part ways we’ve all filled our social quota for the day, which left the rest of the evening for pure nature time. Except that I could barely keep my eyes open. To make matters better/worse, Black Canyon, like Capitol Reef, is a Dark Skies Heritage Site, so if I wanted to see more of the meteor shower tonight I’d have to prioritize a nap. I’d planned to be at Mesa Verde the next day, which is over three hours away, but since I couldn’t leave before nightfall anyway I decide to do one more hike, watch the sunset from Sunset Point, and then rest for a few hours until Meteor Go Time.

Sunset Point

All was going according to plan until I woke up from my nap to the bright, white moon blaring through my windshield. #%&*$! I’d forgotten about the moon. There wouldn’t be any decent star gazing until the wee hours of the morning. I decided my best bet was to start driving immediately and hope for clear skies at Mesa Verde.

This screenshot of my GPS directions mid-trip is indicative of how time was perceived by my sleep deprived mind on this drive

I stopped for more coffee, rolled down the windows, and drove down to the southwest corner of Colorado. By the time I’d pulled into the park parking lot at Mesa Verde it was almost 2am and I didn’t give a damn about the cosmos, even if it was falling down on top of me in shoots and bursts. All I wanted was to sleep. However… surprise, surprise… the universe had other plans.

It is a testament to how tired I was that I put in earplugs and covered my face with my sleeping bag rather than watch the thunderstorm raging around me. It was at least as intense as the one at Arches, I just didn’t have the energy to fear for my life. Good thing I didn’t learn until the next day that Mesa Verde has the second most lightning strikes per year in all of North America. If one bolt of lightning can create a wildfire that reduces a thriving forest to charred wreckage, I shudder to think what it could do to a 5'4'' sack of electrolytes.

The next morning, I groggily camped out at an overlook to eat breakfast and sketch my sleepiness away. I hadn’t expected to be all that into Mesa Verde considering I’m usually more into nature’s creations than man’s but the cliff dwellings made by the Anasazi people are like a Southwest Shire. The homes and storage facilities are perfectly integrated into their surroundings. My mom, an architect and town planner, has taken me to many planned neighborhoods and developments over the years but Mesa Verde puts them all to shame.

Cliff Palace

The Anasazi people (“Ancient Ones”) used tiny handholds and narrow passages in the rock to move from the clifftops to the dwellings. I want to live here, like, a lot. I, like the Anasazi, want to climb all climbable things at all times. Looking down at the bandages on my shins from yesterdays hike it’s clear I could use a few lessons from the Ancient Ones. I eye the sign hanging over one of the trails explaining that it will basically cost me my first child to explore any of the dwellings without a tour guide. Fighting the urge to rack up yet another potential arrest warrant in the Southwest, I sign up for an official tour of Cliff Palace, the largest of the dwellings.

I get the last tour ticket of the morning and bolt over to where the tour guide, David Nighteagle, who is a Pueblo Indian of Anasazi origin, is halfway through the safety speech. He leads us down a narrow canyon and through the dwelling, pointing out colorful ancient art and hidden hand holds. At the end of the tour he pulls out his flute and fills the ancient village center with music. A hush falls over our tour group, the group following us, and park visitors looking down from the cliffs above. To hear music in a place like this is transporting. I can hardly breathe as I listen to the sound echo often the crumbling stones. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the park guides and rangers who, like David, are able to move visitors through song and story to another time within this place. Why do we even bother to present theater in theaters? I wonder. There are places in this world, even places that have been abandoned for nearly a thousand years, that are infinitely more alive than a blackbox theater. I find myself wondering what kind of production I would put up in Cliff Palace, given the opportunity.

This is a video someone made of him playing that I found online:

By early afternoon I’ve said my goodbyes to Mesa Verde and headed south toward Canyon DeChelly National Monument back in Arizona. There, I find a cd of flute music like what David was playing and listen to it as I drive the rim of the canyon. Canyon DeChelly is a perfectly secluded, bucolic hybrid of Black Canyon and Mesa Verde with cliff dwellings of it’s own and impossibly high canyon walls.

l’appel du vide, anyone?

The canyon is in Navajo country and I pass through reservation land on my way in and out. Some of it looks desperately poor. I was on Navajo land earlier today, as well, when I passed through Four Corners, which is the tourist area built up around the intersection point of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. There was a $5 entrance fee and a queue to stand at the exact point where all four states meet. I knew it was kitschy but I did it anyway. Next to the queue was a sign that said “3 photos per group.” Why not four? I wondered. Surely four states warrants four photos. Not that there was any pressure to get this handstand right in three tries or anything…

Four limbs, four states; coincidence?

With coffee jitters and glassy eyes, I arrived at the last stop of Park Blitz- Hubbell Trading Post National Monument- where Navajo Indians and settlers came to trade beginning in 1878. I‘d been hellbent on the big game of National Parks this road trip but Hubbell was less than a minutes drive from the highway I was on so couldn’t in good conscience not stop. There are 412 NPS sites in America and only 58 of them are National Parks, which leaves 354 gorgeous national monuments/forests/recreation areas/historical sites/etc all over the country that deserve lots of love and attention, but that’s a story for anther post.

I stayed at Hubbell long enough for a cursory look around the premises and headed out before I could run the risk of falling over onto the pile of rugs and waking up some time next week. I arrived home with exhaustion induced double vision and only a vague recollection of what went down in the last 3 1/2 day. Park Blitz had finally come to an end. Was it only three days ago that I stood on the edge of a cliff at Bryce Canyon? Or was it three years? Do slot canyons really exist or is that just a euphemism for vaginas? Did I really meet an Italian oracle at a miracle pool in the desert? A memory of lightning and a shooting star crossing the sky at the same moment flashed through my mind. Thank god for the 500 pictures I’ve taken this week or I wouldn’t believe the half of it, I think.

As I’d feared, Park Blitz did not so much sate my desire to visit Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde, Canyon DeChelly, or Hubbell Trading Post as intensify the need to spend more time in them. I still have hikes to hike, stars to gaze, and if I’m going to be exploring my spirituality- by choice or universal force- it’s going to be on the trails of American cathedrals.