Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Moving [blog]house

Hi friends!

Blogger has been lovely, but their mobile-updating options are terrible/non-existent, so I'm moving things over to Wordpress instead. Come find me there -- I might even post updates more often!


Friday, November 11, 2016

Polygamist Canyon

We woke up early and stopped in Cedar City for lunch, at a big coffeeshop/cafe called The Grind. We had delicious sandwiches and sat next to a nice knitting/sewing circle. Then we continued South on I-15. That particular highway has several stretches where the posted speed limit is 80mph, and it's mostly straight and flat with visibility for miles. Since there wasn't much traffic and it was sunny and warm, I decided to test out the capabilities of our rental Prius (which did fine once it got up to speed, but took a whole lot of effort to get there), and spent a fair bit of time hovering around 100mph. Fun!

Side note: I've decided that Priuses (Prii, Priora...) judge their drivers harshly for not driving 'green'. In addition to the (really neat) little animated graphic on the dashboard that showed whether the car was using battery or gas power or both and/or charging the battery, the laboring sounds the engine made when accelerating (particularly uphill) sounded a lot to me like "UGH, THIS IS NOT ECO-FRIENDLY, WHY ARE YOU WASTING GAS AND KILLING THE EARTH, SLOW DOWNNNN" as opposed to the normal steady-pace engine sound of "Ah, coasting along, how peaceful and economical, lalala, look at that scenery, isn't nature grand?" Thanks for the feedback, Prius.

We detoured briefly at St George for our last outing and hike of the trip, to Snow Canyon State Park (named after a couple distantly-related pioneers who shared the same last name, not because it's known for its snow).

Side note on those pioneers, mentioned so casually in the article on the Utah State Parks website linked above:
  • Erastus Snow was a prominent Mormon polygamist who had an estimated 15-16 wives and fathered about 37 children. Wife #3 was the mother of wife #2. I have a feeling that he married her at her daughter's request, so as to have an excuse to bring her along on their journey west across the plains, or as a way to recognize his mother-in-law as part of his family. The other 15-ish wives, though, seem to have been the child-bearing sort.
  • Lorenzo Snow was also an early Mormon leader, and the fifth president of the LDS Church. He had nine wives and fathered 42 children. Six of his wives were teenagers when he married them (including his last two wives, who were each 16 at marriage and who each had five children. He was 44 and 57 when he married those last two).
Anyway, back to the scenery!

Snow Canyon has exciting rocks and fauna, including lava fields, lava tubes, so-called petrified sand dunes, and desert tortoises. The tortoises are protected, and when you pay your entry fee you're given strict instructions about them, which include "if you see a turtle crossing the road, stop your vehicle immediately, get out, pick up the turtle gently with two hands, and set it down off the road on the side it was aiming toward, maintaining its original direction of travel."

I learned after our visit that it's also home to Gila monsters, sidewinders, and the giant desert hairy scorpion, which is over five inches long and apparently "aggressive and active", but fortunately I didn't see any of those (or any tortoises, sadly).

The 'petrified' sand dunes are quite beautiful, and fun to clamber across. When I told my dad about them he asked how a sand dune could really be petrified, given that it's already essentially made of rock, just ground-up rock, and petrified things are organic things that become rock when minerals are added. He was absolutely right -- further reading shows that the term 'petrified' is applied incorrectly to these dunes, which were once part of a vast desert. The dunes were covered by layers of other material, and then cemented into rock as water and minerals (mostly quartz and calcite) permeated the sand and the weight of everything on top compressed it. Later the sediments that had covered the sand eroded away, exposing the original shape of the now-solid dunes. Here's one that looks like a sleeping giant:

And here's a more colorful one (please pardon my poorly-stitched-together 'panorama'):

Disregard the unusually exciting sky and focus on the dune.
There were lots of interesting cacti, and all the colors of sandstone you could want. My favorite part was this little section of the rocky outcropping in the first photo above, that looks all folded and bent:

Geology is fascinating.

After a fair little hike I crawled into a collapsed lava tube, pretending I was Indiana Jones and practicing my contortionist yoga skills, all without realizing I was probably only inches away from one of those huge, terrifying scorpions, which, if I had seen it, would have completely ruined my adventure-movie fantasy. Then we continued on and I climbed up a large solid dune to admire the view.

Finally, we reached the last and biggest lava tube, which you can walk right into if you don't mind clambering over big and very sharp chunks of basalt in pitch-black darkness, which is totally fine with me. This tube is about 50' long, but we probably only went about halfway in. It's completely dark, and there are cute medium-sized bats! I like watching bats fly because they're much quieter than birds, echolocation aside. I was very proud of mom for climbing down a steep bit to get to the entrance of the cave, and glad she joined me in the slightly-scary dark.

After we left the cave, we headed back to the car to complete our adventure. We stopped in St George for a quick lunch, then it was back to Vegas to drop off the car (goodbye little Prius, I hope your next driver is more gentle) and catch our flight home. It was a wonderful trip, and I'm looking forward to my next desert visit already!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

I've got views in high places

After our diner breakfast, we set out en route to Bryce Canyon. We stopped along the way in Red Canyon, which is impressive in its own right, and lives up to its colorful name. It was extra dramatic because it was cloudy at the time, and the sky added an ominous cast to the orange/red stone.

After scrambling around on the slippery, flaky red shale (probably not technically shale, apologies to any geologists in the audience), we drove on -- and up; the rim of Bryce Canyon varies between about 8,000 and 9,000 feet.

We stopped briefly at the visitor center, and then went exploring. Due to a misunderstanding between me and the [very vague] map provided at the front desk, we overshot the main tourist viewpoints by several miles, and wound up near the other end of the canyon, but not to complain, as the view was excellent:

After gawking at the view from that end, we wound our way back to the 'main' part of the canyon, where the rock formations (hoodoos) are the most dramatic and where the main trails are located. We wandered along the rim for awhile, admiring the view and the changing colors as the clouds shifted:

We didn't do too much of a hike below the rim -- the air's a bit thin up there, and the trail was fairly steep, so we elected to stay near the top. We saw some of my new favorite trees, the ancient and precarious Bristlecone Pines. They grow normally, but they stick around for so long that the soft stone erodes away from under them and they wind up perched on impressive stilt-like roots:

How long do they grow, you ask? This particular species is the oldest single organism in the world, and can be up to 5,000 years old (yes, that's a five followed by three zeroes).

After our hike, we left Bryce and stopped in the friendly little town of Panguitch (still not sure how that's pronounced) for lunch in a small restored theatre, the Gem. It was mid-afternoon, so options were limited, but this place was great, with house-made ice cream and fresh sandwiches scooped/prepared by a very nice IT nerd from Salt Lake City who was helping the cafe owner (a friend of his) by minding the shop solo for a few weeks. He told us about three recent tornadoes in town and made a mean reuben sandwich.

Then we headed through the Dixie National Forest on a smaller, more scenic route than the main highway suggested on maps. Utah is deeply invested in making sure you don't get lost a.k.a. venture off the main road and disturb the locals. We regularly saw signs on highway exits saying things like "NO SERVICES" which could have meant anything from "tiny friendly community with no shops" to "abandoned ghost town" to "crazy cult headquarters, trespassers will be shot". My favorite sign, though, was the one shortly after exiting the main highway (89) onto route 143:

Are you sure, though? I could have sworn it was.
Dixie National Forest was fairly unexciting, though it was a nice drive. At the far end we found our next destination, Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Cedar Breaks is an International Dark Sky Park, and there were meteor showers scheduled (scheduled? you know what I mean) for that night. It's also over 10,000 feet above sea level, and has similar geology to Bryce Canyon, so I was thrilled to visit. We first drove past and checked into our hotel in the little town of Parowan, then drove back up the mountain to make a scenic circle on our way to dinner in a larger town.

We watched the sunset from the canyon rim, which was quite spectacular:

And then drove down the long way 'round to Cedar City for sandwiches. After dinner we drove back to our hotel on the main highway, to layer clothing and gather blankets and flashlights. Then we drove back up the mountain on my new favorite stretch of road (which included one of the steepest switchbacks I've seen for awhile, with a 15mph speed limit, and a runaway truck ramp that ended in a large mound of sand). We saw herds of mule deer the whole way, so I stuck close to the 25-35mph speed limit. We lost count of deer at about 24 (roughly half of them cute little fawns). Then we arrived at the main lookout, having seen I think one other car on the road. We had the whole mountaintop to ourselves. The ski resort on the nearby peak gets an average of 27 feet of snow per year, and we were near the start of snow season, but although the temperature at the lookout was in the mid-30s, the skies were clear. That would have been great news for stargazing, and I was really hoping to see something like this:

Photo by Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0
But the moon was up and about half full, so although we could see many stars and the Milky Way, it wasn't quite so dramatic. It was beautiful, though, and wonderfully quiet, and very much worth the trip. I was also a bit glad of the bright moonlight, given my fear of the dark, which wasn't helped by my mom hinting that the woods around us were full to the brim with cougars (which was worryingly borne out by later research, but we didn't see any, so it's alright).

After our late-night stargazing adventure, we drove back down the mountain to our little Victorian inn, and went to sleep for the last night of our trip.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A side trip to the Sahara

After our crepe lunch, we stopped to gawk at the 'best dam view in town' (side note: small towns with hydroelectric monuments should be banned from making puns about them. There were two entire pages of ads in the hotel room binder for "the best dam restaurant in town" "the biggest dam shopping center" etc, and I love puns very much but even I sighed out loud over these). Glen Canyon Dam was one of the last large dams built in the US, and it created the second largest man-made lake in the country. Unfortunately, in order to do so it filled up what was apparently an extremely beautiful canyon, full of birds and pretty rock formations. On the plus side, though, those rock formations extend out of the water (especially when the lake level is low), which is quite pretty too.

The lake goes back quite a distance, with a very irregular coastline
And to be fair, the canyon it filled up and turned into a lake used to be part of a huge inland sea (all that sandstone had to come from somewhere).

This is the part of the canyon that doesn't have a lake in it

After leaving Lake Powell we headed north. We detoured into a red canyon for a little hiking along a creekbed, and a bit later on we stopped in Kanab, Utah at a drugstore soda fountain (so retro! Milkshakes!), and kept driving. After a few miles, we spotted a sign for sand dunes, and in keeping with my master plan to visit anything that looked interesting along the way while driving, we turned. We drove through the forest on narrow roads for miles, crossed multiple cattle guards, and drove through a herd of cattle grazing along the road. It wasn't the sort of place you'd expect to find sand dunes, mostly just trees. We considered giving up, but we weren't in a hurry, the drive was pleasant, and we were curious.

When I picture sand dunes, I think of this:
Thanks for the free stock photo, internet!
You know, little hills, usually on a beach, covered with dune grass and probably some sand fleas. Not the most interesting things, but since I knew there weren't any large bodies of water in the area, I was curious what sort of a sand dune could exist.

I was in for a surprise.

Here are the ingredients for a magical desert in the middle of a forest:
  1. Lots of lots of sandstone a.k.a. former sand
  2. Lots of wind to erode said sandstone back into its original form
  3. A notch between mountains that funnels the wind (like a river going through a narrow canyon) and causes it to pick up speed
  4. A valley on the other side of the crack in the mountain, to give the wind a place to spread out and slow down
The wind blows around and erodes the sandstone, moves the sand around a bit, and then gets to the crack in the rock. As the wind speeds up, it gets strong enough to pick up the sand and carry it. When it gets to the valley and slows down, it drops it.

After a few thousand years of this, your 6,000-foot-high valley in the middle of the forest becomes a 3,000-plus-acre surprise desert playground in the middle of the forest. Welcome to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

I only had to walk about five feet out onto the sand before deciding to go barefoot. It was the softest sand I've ever felt, and it was a cloudy day so it was cool to the touch. I knew I definitely had to climb up to the top of the tallest dune. I didn't realize that when I got to the top it would immediately become necessary to drop everything, lay down on my belly in the sand, and crawl around pretending to be in every desert scene in every possible movie. It was unavoidable, though, and it was SO MUCH FUN.

I also jumped off the top of the dune to see what would happen (I sank into the steep side of it, again, SO FUN), pretended to swim in the sand (EXCELLENT), and re-enacted two key scenes from the original Kung Fu (childhood dreams: fulfilled). I mean, with sand that looks like this, how could you NOT do these things?!

There are no sand fleas, in fact hardly any bugs at all. There are tiger beetles that are unique to the area, but I didn't see any of those. The only bug I found was kinda cute, and had made a squiggly little trail in the sand: 

I found a dune grass! This little guy found it too!
It was the best time I've had in ages, and it was 100% worth finding sand *everywhere* for the next three days.

Finally I dragged myself away from pretending to be Lawrence of Arabia and from performing entire sections of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and we continued on our way.

Our final destination for the day was a highlight of the trip, one I'd been looking forward to for weeks; a stay at Galaxy of Hatch, a tiny motorcycle-themed and biker-owned motel and 50's-style diner in the town of Hatch, Utah (pop. 127). It was everything I wanted it to be and more. I mean, for real, read this and try not to choke up. It was perfect (and at breakfast the next day I met the owner, who is exactly how you'd picture him). 

And did I mention that you don't pay for your room when you reserve? You just send them a note and tell them when you're coming, and they hold a room for you on the honor system. I mean. I just. This is magic. What year is this? I love it here.

We checked in at the diner and got our room key and the remote for the ceiling fan. The girl at the counter mentioned that dinner was served until 9pm and that there were no other restaurants open in town; she also assured us that we'd like our room, because it was very clean (I got the impression that she was possibly also the maid). She was right -- the room was spotless, and cozy, and completely dedicated to the theme. I. LOVED. IT.

After settling in and giving me enough time to coo over every aspect of the room, we headed next door to the diner for dinner. It was everything I imagined. My mom attempted to order the pork loin roast:

Mom: "I'll have the pork loin, please."
Waitress: "No. It's not good. Get something else."
Mom: "Ok..... how about the salmon?"
Waitress: "No. We don't have that."
[like, ever? possibly ever.]
Mom: ".....the pulled pork sandwich?"
Waitress: "Yes. Ok. You'll like that, it's good."

I went with chicken strips and fries. I also asked for a side of Ranch dressing and received an entire bottle, a practice I fully approve.

I love diners.

We slept well, and then went back to the diner for breakfast, which is included with the room. It was equally amazing, served by the owner in between chatting with a few bikers on their way through town. I didn't want to leave, but we had more sights to see...

Under the Desert

The next morning we woke up early, around 6am, and I picked up some snacks from the hotel breakfast station. Then we went to the Navajo reservation, and checked in for our tour of Lower Antelope Canyon.

I've had a picture torn out of a calendar from here since I was in my teens, so it's been on my list of places to visit since then. There are two Antelope canyons -- Upper and Lower. Both are part of the same wash (a.k.a. arroyo) -- riverbeds in the desert that are normally dry, but flash flood after heavy rains, which may occur miles away.

Upper Antelope is a channel through sandstone that rises above the surrounding desert, which means the path through it is at ground level. That makes it more accessible, and hence much more popular and crowded. Lower Antelope, on the other hand, is cut into the desert floor, which means it appears to be nothing more than some sandstone along the ground in a slight basin as you approach. When you get very close, you can see that there are narrow gaps in the stone, but it doesn't look like it could possibly go down very far. You walk past the canyon and enter at the other end, and the whole way there it just looks like... nothing. Where could we possibly be going? There's no canyon here, and it's hot, and dusty.

Photo by Alex Proimos via Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0

Then you reach the far end of the canyon, and walk right up to the edge, where there's a railing. It still just looks like a little crack in the rock, but you climb down a sequence of steep stairs (imagine a NYC fire escape, but leading deep into the earth -- about 120 feet deep, to be specific).

After several flights of stairs, you wind up at the bottom, shocked at far down you've come. It's about as wide as a hallway, but the similarity ends there. You start to explore, winding your way through the canyon, in single file most of the way.

Your guide keeps the group together, pointing out particularly interesting rock formations, but no matter which direction you look, everything you can see is stunning.

Sometimes you can see the sky above, other times not. Sometimes you have to duck or twist through narrow spaces, other times it opens out into rooms. The Navajo word for this place means "spiral rock arches" but others just call it "The Corkscrew" -- both terms are accurate. Everywhere the force of floodwater has carved the sandstone into fantastic shapes, so smooth it almost feels fake to the touch, with the layers giving it endless variety.

The colors are incredible -- oranges and purples and reds and browns -- and you realize you could sit in any spot and just stare around for hours without getting bored. At a few points along the way you encounter photographers, who have paid extra for more time to linger in the passageway, setting up their tripods and waiting for just the right light. You wish you were a proper photographer, but you're not, so you do your best:

You're allowed about an hour to work your way through the canyon (which is only a quarter-mile long), and then you reach more stairs at the end and climb your way out, back into the desert heat.

Random dude for scale
After we left the canyon, I dragged us on a side trip to attempt a visit to the Navajo coal power plant down the road, because I dearly love the juxtaposition of industry with nature. The plant wasn't open to the public for tours, unfortunately, but we had a nice drive through a different part of the desert.

Then we went back into town for lunch, to a tucked-away crepe shop I'd picked out in advance. There were a couple locals, and a nice kid behind the counter, with a lady who appeared to be the owner cooking in the back. The menu advertised gluten-free crepes. "Oooh, I wonder if their gluten-free crepes are buckwheat" my mom said enthusiastically, so I encouraged her to ask. The boy working the register wasn't sure, so he went to get the cook (I'm guessing she was his aunt). "Oh, those? Nah, not buckwheat. They've got some rice flour, some tappy-oky, a little xanthan gum... they're pretty terrible, really. I wouldn't recommend them to anyone." I loved the honesty we encountered around food on this trip -- it became an ongoing thing. Even the waiter back at Giada in Las Vegas:

Me: "I'll have the sunrise polenta waffle, please."
Waiter: "Oh, that's a GREAT choice. It comes with this freshly-infused maple syrup that's just a little bit floral, and a really light bechamel, and the waffle is so fluffy and the pancetta gives it an amazing little burst of saltiness... it's delicious."
Me: "Sounds great!"
Mom: "And I'll have the breakfast contadina."
Waiter: "Ok!"
Mom: "...aren't you going to tell me how exciting mine is? Maybe I should order what she did..."
Waiter: "Oh! The contadina is good too... It's just... simpler?"


(both items were great)
(so were the gluten-inclusive crepes)

Anyway, after our quiet crepe lunch, it was time to head north in search of our next adventure!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Managed burn, DO NOT REPORT

In the morning we left St George, Utah, for Page, Arizona. First we tried to have breakfast, but pro tip: if you're visiting Utah, please note that *everything* is closed on Sundays. We finally found an open restaurant in St George, but due to the limited options it was packed, mostly with families towing packs of small blond children. We waited about five of the estimated 30 minutes for a table, and then bailed.

Instead of eating in the 'city', we headed out to a cafe I'd marked, about a 30 minute drive and only slightly out of our way -- River Rock Roasting Company. It was friendly, busy, efficient, and had covered outdoor seating overlooking the Virgin River:

This is a "river"
That Virgin River was a theme for much of the drive -- we must have crossed it about fifteen times between the Valley of Fire and this cafe. As you can see above, it's not terribly impressive, at least not in October. At any rate, the cafe was an excellent choice. We learned a lot about the folks at our neighboring tables (mostly locals in for a Sunday chat, very few small children), enjoyed tasty sandwiches and large blended coffee things, and admired the view. Then it was back to the drive!

We passed through lots of small, insular towns in Utah, and crossed into Arizona at the intersection of Hilldale, UT and Colorado City, AZ (note: not in Colorado). You've probably never heard of these towns unless you're either a member of a Mormon polygamist sect or interested in rare genetic disorders; it turns out that when approx 1/2 the population of your town is directly descended from one or both of the two founders and marrying your cousin[s] is the norm, unusual things happen.

After this exciting tour (not that exciting, as previously noted everything in Utah is closed on Sundays so opportunities for cultural tourism were limited) we split from the main highway in the booming metropolis of Fredonia (pop. 1,314) to take the scenic route, via US Route 89A. I chose this route because it goes past the Vermilion Cliffs (yay, desert and sandstone!) and for variety, since we'd be taking the faster main route the next day, but I didn't research it very thoroughly. I was a little surprised when we started climbing winding mountain roads and driving through dense forest instead of desert, but pleasantly so. It turns out the Vermilion Cliffs are on the east side of the Kaibab Plateau, which peaks at just over 9,000 feet. We kept seeing signs along the road, warning drivers that there was a "Managed Burn" in progress, so please don't call 911, but we never saw the fires, just smelled a little smoke.

After a nice long drive through the woods, we came out the other side rather abruptly, and discovered this, which despite the color and the previous warning signs, was not actually on fire:

We drove past miles of red rock, pulling over periodically to admire the landscape. My favorite stop was here, at a pull-off just past Cliff Dweller's Lodge:

Huge rocks strewn over the landscape like marbles abandoned by a giant's child; steep shale hills to scramble up, a brilliant blue sky and orange-red stone. Oh, and adorable little chipmunk things that moved too fast to photograph! What's not to love? After running around here for a bit, we continued on our way.

Next we crossed an unexpectedly-high bridge over a river gorge. For variety, it wasn't the Virgin River this time! Instead it was the Colorado, en route to the Grand Canyon. We parked right after crossing the car bridge, so that I could run out into the middle of the pedestrian bridge beside it and stare over the edge. My desire to do that wouldn't surprise anyone who knows me, but those who know my mom will be shocked to hear that she came with me all the way to the middle of the bridge! She stayed safely back from the railing, but still. I was impressed. Here's the view both directions from the middle:

The view upstream, back toward the cliffs

And downstream, looking toward the car bridge and ultimately the Grand Canyon

Then it was on to our last hike of the day, at Horseshoe Bend. The name is descriptive enough -- it's a spot where the Colorado River wraps itself around a rock, forming a neat horseshoe shape. It's just outside the town of Page, and very well-known, so quite crowded. After parking in the lot, it's about 3/4 of a mile down to the viewpoint. There are plenty of dramatic pictures online of the full meander, but you need a wide-angle lens and a death wish to get those shots. Instead, please enjoy some dramatic cliffs and a little cairn someone left behind:

After hiking back, we drove the last mile or so into Page and checked into our hotel. It was still daylight, so we had a quick swim in the pool and then went hunting for dinner. I had marked a promising spot, and Big John's Texas BBQ was everything I wanted and more. We sat outside at the communal picnic tables, snacked on whole peanuts, and then ordered large quantities of meat, cornbread, roasted corn on the cob, potato salad, and coleslaw, with peach cobbler and a giant rootbeer float for dessert. About halfway through the meal a local country band started up some Johnny Cash covers, complete with an extra member to lead line-dancing next to the giant smokers on the side. It was perfect.

This is where the meat comes from

After dinner we strolled back to the hotel for another quick night swim and a soak in the hot tub, and then turned in, as we had an appointment with a riverbed early the next morning.

Sunset in the Valley of Fire

After we left Las Vegas, we drove to our first destination; Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

Directions: drive on the main highway for awhile, then turn right. Be directed immediately with no room for argument through a complex obstacle course in a large dirt field, which is doubling as a parking area for an outdoor concert. After telling the various folks directing cars into parking spaces that no, you aren't going to the show, in fact you want to go to the State Park, thank you very much, you're directed back through the obstacle course in the other direction, and onto a small, but paved, state road. A half hour or so later, after lots of brown hills and scrub brush, go through a gate and pay the park fee, wondering where the 'fire' part comes in and hoping it's worth the price of admission. Drive about ten more minutes, crest a rise, and find yourself on in a Dali painting set on Mars. The rocks are sculpted into tortured, organic, visceral shapes, and appear to be melting in the desert heat, their bright red intensified by the sun which is low in the sky behind you.

Yep, this was definitely worth the park fee.

You drive through twisting canyons, watching the colors change from red to orange to gold to white and back again, as the shapes shift and change as well. You want to stop every ten feet and take pictures, but you're in a hurry to get to your designated 45-minute hike before the dire warnings on the park signs ("PARK CLOSES AT SUNSET. ANYONE IN THE PARK AFTER SUNSET IS TRESPASSING!") go into effect. You reach the parking lot for your hike and tumble out of the car, arguing about the definition of "sunset" for park ranger satisfaction ("the sun technically set *here*, but it's just because we're in a hollow... it's still shining up *there*, does that count? Sure! Hurry!"). Then you slip and slide down a steep creek bed, noticing that sand over sandstone is VERY slippery, pausing to admire the colors and shapes in the rock as you pass.

You reach the bottom, which is a dry riverbed. You squeeze through a narrow slot canyon (the first on the trip, more to come!), your shoulders brushing the walls. On the other side, the sun is just sinking behind the horizon, catching the red of the rocks and the surprising green of a bush.

You continue on, gradually climbing back up, as the colors in the sky slowly shift along with the colors in the rock. Some of the shapes and hollows in the rock are bigger than others; finally you come to an arch, like a cave that's gone all the way through to the other side. Obviously you crawl inside, like any self-respecting hobbit hiker, and huddle up against the sandstone to admire the sky.

There's a lot to admire, and the colors get more and more intense the further you go along the trail.

Until finally the sky has become the most astonishing shade of blue; a color you'd expect from the ocean near a tropical island, not from the middle of the desert. You don't think it can get any bluer, until you turn a corner and find yourself passing between dark red rocks, over dark red earth, that provide the perfect contrast.

After this it starts to get dark quickly, but luckily you brought a flashlight (always prepared!), and you're nearly back to the parking lot.

You reach the car and drive slowly out of the park, along winding valley roads, into the gathering darkness. By the time you leave the park it is definitely, absolutely, 100% after sunset -- it's now the kind of dark that only happens in the desert. You drive for miles, and then more miles, eventually back onto the main highway. There's nothing like driving through the desert at night.

You pass briefly into Arizona (you can tell because the quality of the road surface improves drastically and you have a sudden paranoia about getting pulled over and asked for proof of citizenship), and then into Utah (surprising lack of change, though everything does feel very wholesome and lily-white all of a sudden).

Finally you reach a large town (St George) and check in to your hotel. You're hungry, and just about everything is closed, so you go for the hotel restaurant. It's called "Burger Theory" (really?), but you're willing to forgive that. Everything is going well, or as well as can be expected, and your server is friendly (and possibly still in high school). Then she asks what you'd like to drink, and it all comes crashing down.

"I'll have sparkling water, please."
"...sparkling water? Perrier?"
"...Pellegrino? Seltzer?"
"...We don't have that."
[note: there is a full bar and a cocktail menu]
"That's ok, how about club soda?"
"Hahaha what's that?"
"...It's like.... water, with bubbles?"
[this is a real conversation, it's hard to believe but it's true]
"Oh! You mean Sprite!?"
"......nevermind, tap water will be fine."

After dinner (aside from the water it wasn't too memorable, which is a good thing) you remember that tonight is supposed to have a meteor shower, so you decide to drive out and find a dark place and look at the sky. After all that dark desert driving, how hard can it be to find dark skies?

Surprisingly hard, as it turns out. You quickly learn something about the residents of Utah: they really like well-lit towns. Streetlights, house lights, lights on signs, lights on warehouses, lights in parking lots..... lots and lots of lights. Very safe. Also very disappointing if you're trying to see the sky.

You explore most of the industrial area and find a small airport and a nice place where truck drivers park their 18-wheelers for some sleep. It takes much longer than you expect, but finally, almost all the way back to Arizona, you leave the city lights and find a random parking lot in the desert. It turns out that it's the White Dome Nature Preserve (home of the Dwarf Bear Poppy, unique to the area!). You get out of the car to look for meteors, but after all that effort, it's cloudy, and there's no sky to be seen (nor any Dwarf Bear Poppies for that matter, though you're curious about them now).

Slightly disappointed but also a little relieved to be back in the car, because you're secretly a bit afraid of the dark, you head back to the hotel to sleep -- there's a long drive ahead tomorrow.