Four Corners, Part II

Red Rock Canyon * Zion * Bryce Canyon * Capitol Reef * Arches * Mesa Verde * Monument Valley * Grand Canyon

Escaping Vegas was fairly simple: get on the I-15 and drive north.  I'd somehow imagined border guards, determined to herd us back into the center of the city to put more coins into the slots.  (I did play a dollar's worth of slots while I was there, which resulted in me getting to push a button four times at the cost of one dollar.  Whee.)

The landscape started offering new and interesting features pretty quickly, I must say, including the Virgin River Canyon, through which I-15 runs.  It was becoming quite obvious to us that bird life in this climate consisted entirely of Common Ravens unless there was open water present.  Some of the dry riverbeds and washes we saw looked almost ridiculous: huge eroded valleys whose carving had obviously been done by rushing waters now stood utterly desiccated.  If the land's parents had walked through the door to the living room where the land and the water were furiously making out on the sofa, the water could not have vanished more completely, yet the disarray of the land's clothing could not have more clearly proclaimed what had been going on, right down to the bunching of its stony undergarments.

We stopped just short of the Utah border in Mesquite, NV, where we found a breakfast buffet at a local casino and a Wal-Mart at which could buy necessary supplies for the trip.  Yes, visions of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo filling the Great Red Shark's trunk with blotter acid, reds, and ether did pop up in my mind's eye, but we were looking for the stuff that might save an Easterner's life while he was driving an unproven rental truck through the desert: bottled water, a cooler, snack food, and sunscreen, not necessarily in that order.

Once we crossed into Utah, the landscape seemed to hunch up into increasingly higher and more shapely masses of rock, and the colors took a decided redward turn to boot.  By the time we reached St. George, I was actively gawping at the hue of the walls behind the city.  If a brick could catch fire and burn down into coals, they might achieve that shade of glorious red.  We stopped for gas and peeled eastward along Route 9, noting the first of many occasions when a local high school's senior class would feel it necessary to carve the school initials up near the top of a ridge.  It reminded me somewhat of the hill of Uffington, except that I doubt those bronze-age carvers were intending their work to mean "Go, White Horses!  Beat Avebury!"

The ridges and valleys were starting to become overwhelming, though--the shapes, the size, the relentless layers of sedimentary stone, the cloudless blue sky contrasting with the land's pinks, oranges, and reds, all set off by flecks of evergreen and streaks of pure white snow.  Somewhere beyond Signal Peak, I finally felt compelled to turn to Dad and wax literary.  I told him about the end of The Great Gatsby, and Fitzgerald's final, miraculous page, and I tried to summon it up from memory as I looked about me, remembering what he'd written about the first explorer to set eyes on America:  "At last he had found something commensurate with his sense of wonder."  I knew in my heart that the first to see these mountains had felt the same way.

We crawled eventually into the southern end of Zion National Park, a narrow canyon carved out of thousands of feet of rock by the Virgin River.  Here, at least, there was bird life: in the cottonwood trees by the river were Robins, Western Bluebirds, and a handful of Black-capped Chickadees.  Everywhere we looked there was another beautiful rock face, or a stunning set of peaks seen from far below, but I was most impressed with the face of Weeping Rock: a pair of huge stone arches down which water flowed in what seemed like a great curtain--not a waterfall, but a steady veil of raindrops.  In several places you could climb under the flow and look down from under the overhang to see the veil from behind--sort of the same view as in "The Window on the West" from The Two Towers, or The Last of the Mohicans.  And since the nighttime temperatures were still falling well below freezing in the park, a spactacular group of dripped-ice sculptures had formed at the base of the rock face.  A lovely sight all around.

There were no more birds, however, save the ubiquitous ravens, a pair of whom posed very politely for me when we reached the shadowy end of the canyon at the Temple of Sinawava.  There we got a look at an actual waterfall coming down the sandstone into the Virgin.  How many hundreds of feet it fell I can only guess, but I wouldn't doubt a soul who told me the stream began thousands of feet above us.  The afternoon light was visible only on the peaks by then, so Dad and I decided, though it wasn't even 3:00, that it was time to head out for our next lodgings:  Ruby's Inn near Bryce Canyon.

Exiting Zion, we discovered that libertarian streak for which Westerners are legendary, but we discovered it in an admittedly surprising example: the switchback road out of the canyon had only a low rock wall alongside it.  Running a high-clearance vehicle like a Silverado over the edge would have been the easiest thing in the world to do, and hitting the lower stretch of the road several hundred feet below would have been pretty easy as well, what with gravity being so willing to help out.  The overall message we got: we'll help you drivers figure out where not to drive, but you're going to have to keep YOURSELF on the road.  I took the message seriously, both there and in later high places.

Leaving the canyon requires a trip through the mountains, too--and I do mean through them.  At the top of the switchback road, there's a tunnel.  The unusual feature of this tunnel is that it runs parallel to the mountainside, allowing the engineers to light it through the simple expedient of cutting a hole in the side every few hundred feet.  It was oddly enchanting to be in a tunnel but still able to see out into the mountain air.

On the far side of the tunnel, the feeling of enchantment increased, because we had obviously crossed some magical boundary.  On this side there were more evergreens, as well as a heck of a lot more snow, and we noticed that the outside temperature display in the truck was dropping.  It went below 50... then below 40... and as we hit 34, we were faced with the enormous layer cake of Escalante National Monument, a huge slab of pink and white and green that looks like the marble of Florence's Il Duomo, except increased to roughly the size of a continent.

Utah 89 took us north toward Bryce, passing through fields and juniper forests still buried under the winter's snows, though the road itself was pristine--the Utah D.O.T. is on the ball in a big way.  Dad took over driving, allowing me to sit in the shotgun seat and worry about my birding goals:  I'd seen almost no birds all day, and nothing I'd seen was new to me.  But then we fell in beside the flow of the Sevier River... and as we'd already realized, if you want birds out west, open water is what to look for.  I spotted a Great Blue Heron on an islet, and within seconds, there were Mallards as well... and we passed by a Common Goldeneye (only my second ever)... and then, flapping brazenly over the icy flow, a magpie appeared.

And here I must pause a moment to thank the American Ornithological Union.  I saw my first magpie over a quarter-century ago, on a trip to England with my parents.  They call it the Common Magpie there, and certainly its high-contrast plumage and long tail make Pica pica one of the world's most visible and unmistakable birds.  Here it was again, though, the first time I'd ever seen it in America.  But as I checked through my National Geographic Field Guide, I discovered that the bird I'd seen was not Pica pica at all.  Sometime in the late 90s, as best I can tell, the AOU had decided that the American variant was not conspecific with the European one.  What I had seen was Pica hudsonia, the Black-billed Magpie.  A lifer.

After that, nothing could ruin my day, but I must say there was an attempt.  When we reached the turn-off to Bryce Canyon, we took a room at Ruby's Inn, a beautiful and historic lodge established in 1916.  It has cabins, a store, a gas station, and a restaurant, and since there's not much else nearby, we decided to give the restaurant a try.  When we came in, we fell in behind a couple waiting near the cashier's register for the maitre'd... and waiting... and waiting.  The cashier made no particular effort to find out why no one had turned up to seat the couple, or seat us, or for that matter seat the half-dozen people who had by then formed a line behind us.  We could see into the dining room, where at least four tables were empty, though unbussed.  Finally, after nearly fifteen minutes, the cashier apparently decided we'd waited long enough and went off toward the kitchen.  In a flash, there was a busboy clearing the table and a host seating people.

We sat beneath a large photograph of John Wayne (who had apparently spent a few nights at Ruby's) and were confronted by a slightly geeky-looking teenager with glasses who immediately asked if we knew what we'd like.  Since we'd had our menus for all of thirty seconds by that time, we opted to order drinks instead and wait to order dinner until after they had arrived; he seemed vaguely unsettled by this radical approach to dining.  Nonetheless, he brought us the chardonnay (Dad) and Diet Dr. Pepper (me) we'd requested, but he failed to bring Dad his requested ice water.  We nonetheless made our dinner orders, which we'd chosen after examining the environs and calculating the odds of a steakhouse in southern Utah having good seafood (not good).  I asked for the flatiron steak and baked vegetables, Dad the smothered pork chops and baked potato.  He also asked for the bread that the menu said came with entrees, as well as reminding the waiter about the water he'd already requested.

The water did arrive--when our entrees did.  Dad was vaguely irked, especially since the bread still hadn't arrived, but after he'd reminded the waiter about the bread once again, he tucked into his chops.  My steak was quite good--and though I don't eat steak often, I do appreciate a good one when I get it--but the real triumph was the baked vegetables, which were flavorful and crisp, not cooked into oblivion as I'd feared.  I was just finishing the last bite when the bread finally arrived, but by then we both felt duty-bound to eat it, by gum.  Before doing so, however, we asked the waiter for our check, and we spread out butter and munched.  We had time to butter and eat a second piece each as it turned out... more than enough time... where the heck had our waiter gone?

He'd vanished.  He was not wandering the dining room, not tending us, not tending the table full of Japanese tourists nearby, nowhere.  We sat for perhaps ten minutes before I stood up beside the table and made great show of looking for him, hoping that perhaps a park ranger or someone would see me and come by to offer assistance.  I was nearly at the point of resorting to Gilly Macknee's last-ditch method of attracting a server--it involves a paper napkin, a lighter, and a willingness to risk setting off a smoke alarm--when he finally appeared from the bowels of the restaurant and handed over our check.  I'll just say I didn't bother to calculate what fifteen percent of it might be.

Nonetheless, we made it to the cashier's desk without further incident and I handed over my debit card.  The cashier swiped it, scowled at the display, and said, "Hmm.  The internet's been funny all day..."  After a few more ineffective swipes, I smiled and reached back for my wallet, saying "If it's not working, I can just pay cash."  "Oh, it'll work," he insisted, swiping the same card through the same unresponsive mechanism with the same futility.  And swiping it again.  And again.  And again.  "Let's just cancel the card transaction; I'll pay cash," I said again, much more Loudly And Firmly, and pointedly thrust a handful of bills at him.  At last he relented and handed me back my card, accepted my cash, and gave me my change.  I dropped a pointedly paltry amount on the table and ran for our room before anyone else in the food service industry could get in my way.

IN OUR NEXT INSTALLMENT: Hoodoo gurus!  High-altitude travel!  More snow!  The ride of our lives!  And my baffling encounter with the Mormon burrito!

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on March 29, 2008 1:06 PM.

Four Corners, Part I was the previous entry in this blog.

Four Corners, Part III is the next entry in this blog.

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