July 26, 2017
After some frenzied packing and energy ball procuring, we hit the road just before 8am. I promptly slept until Jason woke me for spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains and a hike in Minturn, just west of the big ski town of Vail. The hike took us along a creek that created a fascinating arboreal divide: while pine trees dominated one side, thick, white birch trees lined the other. Marlene was in a much better mood on this hike, citing the narrowness of the trail and the lush foliage engulfing us. We hiked for much longer than we had planned, climbing higher and higher into what felt like a rainforest. Running low on water and Jason’s stomach rumbling every few minutes, we finally turned around and scurried back down.
Marlene drove the rest of the way to Moab while Jason made PB&Js and we listened to more of the audiobook. The change in scenery was perhaps the most extreme of the road trip during this stretch of the drive, as what were tall imposing piny mountains become much shorter and drier, surrounded by desert. The area became increasingly lonely as the rocks around us grew redder and redder until we rolled into Arches National Park near Moab. Here, sheered cliff faces lined the highway, blasting powerful color into our eyes.
We pulled into the visitor center and stepped into 100-degree heat that immediately made us yearn for A/C and water. We went inside and received advice on seeing the arches and dispersed camping. According to the ranger, any Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land surrounding the neighboring Canyonlands National Park is fair game for free camping, so long as we could find an established campsite. Perfect, we thought. We can see the Arches, get to the outskirts of Canyonlands 1-2 hours before sunset, find a spot and set up camp, enabling us to stroll into the park in the morning! Little did we know at the time, most of this plan would fail.
As we drove through Arches, we looked out at the stunning rock formations lining the road. As we pulled into the parking area near Double Arch, we realized the park was closing in just 15 minutes! We quickened our walking pace, ultimately standing just feet away from the breathtaking blood-red double arch. We headed back toward the parking lot, taking a shortcut this time on a trail through some brush.
“This seems like the kind of area where you’d see a snake,” Marlene murmured.
Just seconds later, Jason grabbed her arm and exclaimed, “SNAKE!!!” Marlene let out a yelp as we found ourselves feet away from the largest wild snake we had ever seen, its black tongue protruding in and out of its mouth menacingly. We let out a sigh of relief as it slithered away from the path. We returned to the car, re-energized by the encounter and excited to find ourselves a campsite. Jason drove while Marlene navigated them to Canyondlands. As we drew closer, the terrain changed a bit; the red rock had disappeared and we were now completely surrounded by desert that extended all the way to the distant blue mountains on the horizon.
We began looking for a campsite before 7:00, which we thought would give us plenty of time to set up before the 8:30 sunset. As planned, we drove to the lsat marked BLM road before Canyonlands. To our dismay, we found a “no camping” sign where we had hoped to see marked campsites. Another hour of searching ensued. Jason’s hunger burgeoned along with the hopelessness of the situation, as a flash flood warning buzzed on his phone and the sunlight began to dwindle. Finally, Jason decided the searching needed to find its end, and he steered Priya back to the first BLM road they had come to, this time driving farther down the road. We got out of the car and as the search for a campsite began, so did the quarreling.
After meandering about in the desert for a while without finding any indication that anyone had ever camped here, we walked to the top of a small hill and stumbled upon a signpost and approached it. Could it be a “camp here, please!” sign? Of course, the answer to that question was no, but the faded words “NO SMOKING” printed on the rusty metal thrilled Jason. “Yay, clearly people have camped here!” he exclaimed. Marlene was at first delighted at the thought of finding an established site, but this turned to frustration when she realized that it really wasn’t an established campsite at all, and certainly didn’t meet her standards in terms of flatness and proximity to the car.
Exasperated, Jason walked back down the hill searched feverishly for a better site. After finding this effort futile and losing hope on the mission, we discussed what to do next. While Jason and his hunger insisted that they stay, eat some food, and camp on the little hill with the no smoking sign, Marlene was not at all sold on the wiseness of this decision. Eventually she reluctantly obliged and stalked away to the campsite, carrying the tent and sleeping bag while Jason scarfed down kidney beans. Soon, we were settled into our little tent in the middle of the desert, still quarreling but well-fed and with a “roof” over our heads. The surroundings were nothing short of beautiful; the desert and mountains looked like a painting as the moon and the stars grew more prominent.
Nonetheless, as the light disappeared the night quickly grew spooky and unsettling. Every bit of rustling near the tent made Jason’s hair stand up and heart race. The sounds of the desert carried for miles. The eeriness of this feeling cannot be described, only experienced first hand. Needless to say, it was very difficult for Jason to sleep that night and he spent the whole time telling himself that Marlene was right – we should not have chosen to camp here. He was jolted awake an hour later by a coyote howling in the distance. Again, his scalp tingled with fright. The desert, though empty, somehow felt full of danger in this moment.