The last part of our trip was devoted to the Utah desert in all its glory. As I mentioned in my last post, it was as hot as Hades in Moab. So we did what all of the locals and tourists do. We woke up early every morning, much to Sophie’s chagrin. Comments like, “Mom! Why are you doing this to me?” “Why are you torturing me? ” “This is not a vacation!” were inevitably accompanied by cold hard stares, harumpfs and groans.
As much as Sophie may have wished for us to just leave her alone, we were not deterred. She was stuck with us, for better or for worse. And she was stuck going on hikes, for better or for worse.
Our first early morning excursion took us about 45 minutes out of Moab to Canyonlands National Park. The distinct topography that each park offers has been nothing less than fascinating. In this case, the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands struck me as a smaller, more intimate version of the Grand Canyon, with a lot more desert. Canyonlands stands in the shadows of Arches, and accordingly, was a lot less crowded.
We first conquered the summit of Whale Rock, a huge formation that does, indeed, look like a whale. This trail, while relatively short, was a nice change for a few reasons. First, it wasn’t a real trail. Similar to Hansel & Gretel, the only way to stay on the “path” was to follow the breadcrumbs left by the park rangers. In this case, those breadcrumbs are cairns, successive piles of stone that mark the route. The hike also involved a bit of climbing to reach the top, which is always a plus when you have kids in tow. And until we began our descent, we were the only people out there. The moments of solitude that we’ve been able to enjoy during this trip have been nothing short of extraordinary.
After mounting the whale (keep your dirty thoughts to yourselves), we then saw our first arch, even though we had not yet visited the famous arches of Arches. Baptized Mesa Arch, it was easily accessible and climbable. There are rules against climbing the arches, but we broke them in this instance so that Chloe and Sophie could experience the feeling of floating in the air. My husband is a bit of an acrophobe and was none too happy about their enthusiastic desire to conquer the arch, which is why I made sure to have them do it before he arrived. As a proud junior ranger, Sophie likely would have been kicked out of the program had she been caught, but I was ready to defend her honor by claiming that I had forced her to do it despite her emphatic protests. At eight years old, “my parents made me do it” is always a convenient excuse.
Another highlight of our Canyonlands morning: Sophie’s lizard sighting. And not just one of those measly salamanders we’ve seen elsewhere during this trip (and in Florida, too).This one was a substantial beast compared to the pedestrian reptilian creatures we’ve seen before. It was a fast little bugger and hard to spot because it camouflaged itself so well.
Despite breaking the rules at Mesa Arch (a secret we swore to keep to ourselves, which I suppose I’m now breaking by publishing this blog post), Sophie received her fifth junior ranger badge at Canyonlands. After receiving her sixth at Arches, she now knows the pledge by heart.
An aside that has nothing to do with Canyonlands: We’re driving on the freeway driving back to Las Vegas as I write this blog. There were no other cars for dozens of miles until now. We now have company. Five other vehicles stand between us and the arresting landscape. What nerve!
AN INTERLUDE TO COOL OFF IN THE COLORADO RIVER
When Sophie learned that the following day would not require any hiking, she was very happy. She was still unhappy that she had to get up early, but knowing that her ankles wouldn’t hurt at the end of the day was enough motivation for her to mute her protests.It was time to experience whitewater rafting on the Colorado River. We signed up for a full-day excursion and by happy coincidence were placed in a raft with a French-speaking Swiss family. We have encountered many Europeans on this trip, but French speakers have been so common that it’s often felt like we were back in France. This was especially the case in Moab where at least half of the people staying at our hotel were French. The crappy French economy has obviously not impacted the entire country’s population.
Back to our rafting adventure. The rapids on our trip were classified as Class I and II – so we were essentially rafting the equivalent of the bunny trail in skiing. But no matter. Sophie and Chloe were in heaven. Especially Sophie. The guide was very attentive to her and she responded in kind. In fact, when she wasn’t playing in the river, Sophie spent most of the time chatting with our able leader, a well-spoken, well-traveled and ambitious young woman who’s spent her last three summers working as an outdoor guide at Moab. Although we were in a raft where everyone “helps” with the paddling, our helmswoman did 95% of the work. And it was work. Because when we weren’t navigating rapids, the river’s current, while constantly in motion, wasn’t always particularly strong. Our group played its small part, however, by happily stroking every so often to fool ourselves into believing that we were actually contributing to the raft’s forward momentum.
With the exception of my mom, who didn’t find the color of the muddy water particularly appealing, all of us spent some time floating in the river. We had to wear life jackets, of course, which the guides tightened so much that my boobs were suffocating. Who’d have thought that a wearing life jacket gives you a pretty good approximation of what it must be like to wear a corset?
Fun fact: Did you know that they make life jackets with cut-outs for boobs? Unfortunately, our outfitter didn’t provide them but I hope that the person who invented them has made a fortune.
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
A few weeks ago, I registered us for a hike in the Fiery Furnace at Arches with one of Moab’s adventure outfitters. Hiking there requires a permit – the National Park Service only allows 100 people to visit there per day. The area doesn’t have any marked trails and it’s about as pristine as you’d expect (Sophie didn’t find one piece of garbage to collect there for her junior ranger badge) given the strict limitations placed on human exploration. I was convinced that it’d be a great way to end our trip – the contrarian in me was not particularly eager to trek to Delicate Arch along with everyone else. The Fiery Furnace seemed like the perfect unique hike for us to do instead.
When I initially described the hike to my mom, she was concerned that it would be too hot and too difficult for her and Sophie. She was assured that it would be a feasible hike as long as she wasn’t claustrophobic and had good knees. I also knew that Sophie would LOVE this hike. There was no way I’d let her miss it. You see, the Fiery Furnace adventure is a strenuous three-hour hike that requires a good amount of scurrying up rocks and sliding through narrow slots. Precisely the kind of thing that is right up Sophie’s alley.
We had to meet our group at 7 am, so you can imagine Sophie’s reaction when we woke her up. If she was allowed to curse, she would have used every swear word in the book. But to her credit, she quickly apologized to her Papa and me for acting like a pill. That’s when I knew it was going to be a great day.
Another aside: We have just seen our first-ever 80 mph speed limit. Cheers to the Land of the Free. This will most certainly exacerbate my tendencies towards road rage once we return home.
We’ve been on some wonderful hikes during this trip: The Narrows and Emerald Pools at Zion, the amphitheater at Bryce Canyon, the rim of the Grand Canyon. And I wager that even our recalcitrant Sophie will someday, in the not-too-distant future, agree. But the Fiery Furnace took the cake. From the moment we ventured into the haunting desertlike landscape of red rocks and arches, we knew that this was different. It was quiet. It was red rocks and a cloudless blue sky. It was a labyrinth. It was an adventure. It was so much fun!
Our guide, a lovely woman from Chile, was terrific and knowledgeable. She led us to hidden corners that we never would have seen on our own (you can hike the Fiery Furnace without a guide, although it’s not recommended, if you buy a permit and watch a mandatory orientation video). It was awesome for the girls to see two smart and strong women lead the activities that were highlights of our trip.
We climbed rocks. Lots of rocks. We held in our stomachs and slinked through narrow slots. We saw many hidden arches. Surprise Arch. Kissing Turtles Arch. Skull Arch. We saw a couple of arches that aren’t arches at all, but bridges. We saw juniper trees, cottonwood trees, yuccas, prickly pear cacti, birds and measly salamanders. We saw biological soil, which looks like the aftermath of a volcano eruption.
Sophie was in heaven. As the smallest and youngest person in the group, she was our guide’s right-hand girl. If our guide needed someone to demonstrate how to navigate a slot or climb a rock, Sophie showed the way. About two hours into our adventure, Sophie pulled me aside and said, “This hike is awesome!” Because I’m sometimes a good mom, I didn’t say, “I told you so.” I just thought it. Instead I asked her why she liked it so much. “I get to climb rocks! I get to be the leader! And when I’m the leader, everyone watches me to see what I do!” And I guarantee that this is the part of the trip she will remember most.
Determined to visit Arches once more before driving back to Vegas, we took a drive after dinner to glimpse the sunset. And after a marvelous two-week, 1,600-mile road trip, we made it just in time.