5235, Sometimes, the Road IS the Reason
Sunday Afternoon, April 30, 2017
Last Saturday, about 9 days ago, Francine left to visit family in the East. I dropped her off at DIA around 4:30am, and rolled home with that familiar sense of possibility that has always accompanied a decent stretch of solitude.
I spent most of that Saturday and Sunday doing chores around here. I caught up laundry, trimmed the bushes, dug the lawnmower out of the shed and cut the grass, took the winter weight out of Thunder Truck, filled its tank and tires, got it ready for mulch season, and I would have dug out all the patio furniture, but as beautiful as it was at that moment, the weather services were all forecasting snow for this weekend.
During the week, I did my regular thing… ‘Packed my lunch in the morning, and went to work each day… and when the evening rolled around’ (thanks, Jackson), made a light dinner, bought a few groceries so that we would be good to go next week, played my guitar, took a few hikes, walked into town for a burger one night… All the regular stuff…
This past Friday morning, I awoke still ambivalent about whether to go away this weekend. Part of me wanted to be away, part of me wanted to be here if it snowed. Friday morning early was as blue and cloudless as it could be. At work, a few of us laughed at the forecasters and their predictions.
By 10am, it was beginning to cloud up and by 11am it was really dark.
Around noon, I checked the weather in Southern Utah one more time. The prediction was for perfect cloudless skies all weekend. If spring snow really came here as was forecast, all I really needed to do was get over the Rockies and I would be home free.
I received a spontaneous invitation to share lunch, but declined. Instead, I dashed home and loaded my camping gear into the truck.
By the time I was back at the office, it was snowing. By the time 2pm rolled around, it was snowing its ass off. Email was slow, and I slipped into my truck and fired up.
I was so excited. Down Route 93 toward Golden, the snow fell in bands. Sometimes the road was white; sometimes it was perfectly dry. On westbound I-70, much of the road was still dry even as the snow swooshed in waves across the pavement as the traffic rolled up Floyd Hill. I had my groceries, too. One apple, a box of Honey Oat crumbly bars, a 4-pack of Reese’s Cups, one peppered salami, and a bag of chocolate mini Donettes. Does it get any better than this?
By the time I got to the tunnel at Idaho Springs, I was in 4WD. The west side of Loveland Pass was slippery, and it continued to warrant lower gear and 4WD all the way to Glenwood Springs. A few exits further on, I stopped and fueled up the truck and me – Conoco and McD’s.
The road dried off. Traffic was light. I was on my way.
It was probably around 6pm when I crossed into Utah. I considered jumping off at Sulpher, Exit 221 to revisit my Best Day Place, but it was still cloudy and I could see patches of rain on the northwest horizon. The road I’d need to travel would be a mess if it got wet, and I didn’t want to spend the weekend waiting for a tow truck.
This time, I went all the way to Route 191 instead of following the Colorado River downstream to Moab. It was fun, and I stopped to photo the USPS mileage sign just south of I-70.
Moab was super crowded, with people lining the streets on both sides like a parade was approaching. It was. By the time I was in downtown, vintage cars and trucks were everywhere. They ranged from totally stock and restored, to whimsical creations, to barely started projects. Engines revved and roared, and the smell of partially burned gasoline made the place smell like the 60s, not just look like them.
Here was my plan:
- Enter the Newspaper Rock area and camp just outside of Canyon Lands NP in my secret spot
- Get a great night’s sleep under the stars
- Wake up on Saturday morning and make coffee
- Get the big hike to the overlook where the Green and Colorado Rivers meet
- Roll south toward Monument Valley
- Find a place to camp in either Valley of the Gods, or drive up to Muley Point and camp up there on the high bluff
- Sleep somewhere on Saturday night with good stars
- Wake up early Sunday morning and get on the road
- Drive 9 hours, empty my truck at the house, and get a load of laundry on
- Be ready to pick up Francine at the airport when she arrived there around 8pm on Sunday evening
Here’s what actually happened:
- The distance from Moab to the areas where I had anticipated camping was a lot further than I remembered it to be
- It was 10pm when I found my secret spot outside of Canyon Lands
- By the time I arrived, I was getting low on gas – I should’ve fueled up in Moab
- The sky was not clear at all
- I set up the tent, knowing I was probably going to need it
- The wind was howling, and it was damn cold. As soon as I had the tent up and staked down by a single stake, I changed out of my road clothes and put on everything warm I had with me, including longjohn top and bottom, fleece shirt, wool sweater, wool beret, and down jacket with hood
- I was tired and it was too windy to build a fire. It would have been useless and dangerous even if I’d had the energy
- I got my ground bed ready, setting up my base pad, inflatable pad, sleeping bag and water bottle
- I slid into the sack and relaxed. The stars were peeking out in a thin but vivid band along the eastern horizon. The clear section of sky was just enough to distinguish a few constellations, including The Plow Man and Corona Borealis. I took that as a good sign.
- 2 seconds later, my tent freed itself from the stake during a blast of wind. It tumbled toward me, bounced over me, and continued into the sage on my left.
- I sat up, unzipped my bag, pulled on my shoes, and chased after it through the darkness. A sliver of moon peaked between the western clouds, and I could see the tent perfectly. The question was ‘could I outrun it?’
- I captured the tent and carried it back to the truck. I pushed it against the lee side of the truck, got my camp chair out of the back and using it, wedged the tent in tight so it wouldn’t blow away.
- It was getting late.
- I slid my shoes off and again relaxed into my sleeping bag.
- While drifting off about 15 minutes later, the wind shrieked, and I heard the camp chair tumble over at about the same moment I recognized the sound of auto paint being scratched. Before I could unzip my bag, the tent rolled happily over me and continued on its journey across the s[t]age.
- I was pissed.
- I unzipped the bag and wrangled on my shoes.
- I brought the tent back and put my foot on it while I found the tent stakes and my ax. It’s what I should have done in the first place.
- I staked it down good and tight.
- Back in the bag once again, the stars opened up overhead, and I lay there perfectly content and comfortable.
- During the night it clouded up. The wind really amped up. The tent woke me as its flaps flapped and snapped. But it never escaped.
- About 4:30am, a wall of freezing rain and snow startled me. I was deeply asleep, and initially disoriented by the sound of it peppering my hood. I sat up, the hood fell back, and the sleet and snow hit me in the face.
- I checked my watch – get in the tent or get up?
- Across the valley, the clouds and swirling snow hid the tops of the buttes less than 500 feet above my elevation. This looked serious.
- Sliding out of the bag, the freezing rain and snow hit my bare feet as I fumbled in the dark for my shoes.
- The inside of my bag was getting wet, and I rolled off it, zipping it closed to keep it as dry as possible. It seemed like the rain was intensifying.
- I suddenly remembered the drywash I crossed on the way back to this secret spot. If rain started coming, that drywash would no longer be dry, and it was deep enough to be a serious threat.
- Suddenly-even-more-suddenly, time was of the essence.
- I opened the driver’s side passenger door on the lee side of the wind.
- I gathered up sleeping bag, blow-up pad, and base pad in one armful, dashed to the truck, and stuffed them on the back seat. Closing the door, I ran around to the back of the truck and opened the hatch.
- In the cold, the hatch struts didn’t fully flex. I whacked my head on a low-hanging corner.
- I dashed back to where I’d been sleeping and grabbed my lantern and water jug, and threw them in the back.
- At my tent, I quickly popped the fly off and stuffed it in the back.
- It was POURING. I imagined myself dead somewhere downstream of the dirtroad/arroyo crossing. The truck, in a crumpled twist, with gawkers shaking their heads and musing on the series of bad judgments it took to get my equipment and me to that conclusion.
- I grabbed the tent’s uni-pole and released it from the tent grommets. One of the legs sprung up and hit me in the face. No grudges held, I quickly folded it, turned, and threw it toward the open hatch. As it flew, it began reassembling itself, and I cringed as I again heard the sound of paint being chipped.
- I grabbed the tent and its ground cloth at one corner.
- The stake would not budge.
- I tried the corner at the other side but it too was staked tight and wouldn’t release. All that earlier anger channeled through ax to stake…
- Did I mention it was pouring, it was dark, and the wind was howling?
- When I leaned down to pull in vain, the tent fabric caught the tempest and repeatedly fluffed up in my face, spritzing me with snow and sleet
- I tried the third corner and it released… S-L-O-W-L-Y
- I could feel the wetness coming through my down coat into my back.
- Arroyo crossing or not, I was getting wet and cold. I started the engine to get some heat going.
- Back at the tent, I was working up the fourth of four stakes when I remembered that the truck was low on gas when I came in last night.
- I jumped up and turned the truck off
- I found the ax, hidden underneath the jumbled fly, and used it to gently ease the first two intractable tent stakes from their moorings
- As soon as they were up, I threw everything in the back
- Using the lantern, I made one more check
- I jumped in, fired up, put it in 4WD, and started my way out.
- When I crossed the washout, there was barely a trickle, but the rain was turning firmly into snow.
- I turned the heat and fan on HIGH
- It was just passing 5am and it was snowing its ASS off
- Way to leave that late-spring Front Range snowfall in the rearview, YondeR!
Safely out on the hard road, I slowed into a pullout and did a gut check. The wind shook the truck, snow swirled in the headlights, my gas gauge shouted thirsty, I wanted a cup of coffee… And really, did I actually think that walking 5 miles one way over smooth rock, alone in fresh snow, in the backcountry of Canyon Lands, was using good judgment? How many hours would I have to wait until the snow melted a little and it felt safe to make a good go of it?
I never looked back.
About an hour later, I was filling up in Monticello. As I paid for my coffee, the person behind the counter said it was supposed to be like this all day. My truck was still in 4wd and the road between here and there had had a surprising amount of accumulation on it. The parking lot outside the store was seriously slick.
When I got back in the truck, I thought, “This is bullshit. I came here because I’m done with snow for this winter. I’m out of here.”
Leaving the lot, I headed north, not south.
17 miles further on, I was passing the entrance to the Newspaper Rock Area from which I’d come an hour before. The sun broke through the clouds and blue sky was peeking everywhere. I pulled off and sat with the engine idling. “What are the Ancients trying to tell me?” I did a u-turn. It still didn’t make sense to do the hike, but at least I could head south toward Blanding and Navajo Red Rock Country.
For a little while, the sun seemed like it would win the battle. I pulled into the Valley of the Gods, took some photos, was so grateful to be there, and drove until I found one of the most secluded informal campsites in the whole set-aside. It was waiting for me, and I pulled in, looped around so the truck faced out toward the road, and shut things down. The wind roared and I didn’t care.
Over the next few hours, I hiked, took photos, sat in my camp chair in the lee of the truck, and waited for the Magic of Solitude to happen. Cell service was stronger than it should have been, and I texted My Dear Ones. I sent them a photo and told them I could hear the voice of The Ancients. They got it, and sent back smiles and encouragement.
After a good hike, I came back and snuggled on the front passenger seat. It occurred to me that this might be how I might spend the entire rest of the day. Hiking, texting, relaxing… Leaving space for an insight. Leaving quiet available in order to better hear The Unheard. I read for a while, got sleepy, laid the book on my driver’s seat, closed my eyes, and drifted off.
What woke me was the truck shaking.
The wind had intensified dramatically and rain spat on the windshield. Even though it was still only early afternoon, the sky was dark. I was in the passenger seat and out the right hand rearview I could see my camp chair, once in the lee behind the truck, tumbling over the firepit and heading toward the break beyond. Quickly, I pulled on my boots and jumped out. The Utah map on the truck floor caught in my feet and whipped out into the wind, blowing 15 feet into the air as it tumbled away out of control.
First I chased the map. It snagged in some kind of scraggle-bush and when I caught up to it, I practically tackled it until realizing there were thorns involved. My left hand felt bee-stung. Down in another shallow ravine, I grabbed the chair, collapsed it, and carried both back to the truck.
For the second or tenth time since I’d awakened that morning, I muttered “This is bullshit”.
I wondered how The Ancients would respond?
I listened hard but no one involved was sharing anything.
Wisdom in all forms seemed out of reach.
The sky was dark and getting darker. Did I really feel like sitting/dozing/hiking/waiting until darkness in the hope that the sky would clear or I would get some kind of insight or personal revelation?
I opened the rear hatch, grabbed my knife and the pepper salami, and using some unused firewood as a cutting board, sliced off about three wafers. Oh my gosh! They tasted so good. I chased them with a couple of dark “chocolate” covered Donettes from the re-closable bag behind the seat. They seriously under-achieved the expectations I’d had for them.
It was time. There was nothing to be gained by being here. It was too cold to sit outside, the truck was not designed to be a lounging space, I did not feel like a repeat of last night’s “traveling tent” show, and the sky was just getting darker and darker.
I washed down the Donettes with a few more slices of salami, took a long gulp of water, checked the scene for man-made debris, and fired up.
I was almost to the hard road when the sky seemed to clear again. I pulled off and sat there second-guessing myself. As I strongly considered turning around, the sky turned dark again.
Laughing out loud, I leaned forward in the driver’s seat and exclaimed, “Okay. I get it now! Every time I decide to leave, the sky turns bright. Every time I refuse to leave, the sky turns to shit. Maybe I’m just slow, but I think I finally hear you.”
I found KTNN, The Voice of the Navajo Nations, on the AM dial. With no reservations this time (sorry), I pulled onto paved highway and launched north. I filled up the truck in Moab, which was still a happy zoo; only there was a two-mile back up inbound from the north side. I was glad to be heading in the opposite direction.
It just got better. The sun was behind me while tracing the Colorado River upstream. Each turn was a vista.
At the tee, I made a right. I slowed going past the ghost town of Cisco, and pulled off to take a few appreciative photos of the panoramic views further along that stretch of unmarked 1½ lane.
By the time I merged onto eastbound I-70, the sun was beaming.
In Grand Junction, the sky resumed its grey brooding.
I found a ballgame on the radio. The second game of a three game series, the Rockies were facing the Diamondbacks in Arizona. The hosts quickly jumped out to a 2 run lead. By the time I reached Glen Canyon, the signal turned to static and I turned it off.
On the grade toward Vail Pass summit, I shifted back into 4WD and lower gear. People sped past me. Maybe I was geezing, but I tested my brakes and slowed until I didn’t hear the ABS chatter every time I feathered the pedal. I was going 45mph up the hill.
I kept the radio off until I was almost to Georgetown. By then, it was clear that the slipperiest miles were behind me. When I found the game again, the Rocks had at some point fallen to a 6-1 deficit, but now were coming back. The score was 6-4.
By the time I was refueling in Golden, the score was tied with two outs in the top of the 9th. The D’back’s pitcher threw a wild one and the Rock’s go-ahead run scored. The locals in Phoenix were booing and the Rockies’ Radio announcers were going crazy. I stood next to the pump with the motor off, the radio on, the door open, and the volume up.
Rolling north on Route 93, the top of the 9th inning ended. The D’backs got a pinch-hit and the top of their order was coming up. Our pitcher threw a wild one and their runner got to second base. Then miraculously, the rest of the side, the heart of their order, was retired one, two, three. As I turned right onto Marshall Road, I snapped off the radio, smiling at the fun and the journey.
Parking on my street. The stuff left in the truck. Pushing the thermostat back up, shoveling the snow off the hot tub, coming back in to leave my laundry on the floor, then slipping into the steaming water.
A few stars peeked out.
This morning, I emptied the truck and hung my damp tent, sleeping bag, and other gear from the nails in the shed rafters. The sky was clearing, and I took a great hike up Rattlesnake Gulch over in Eldo.
As I hiked, I was musing on how much I really enjoyed the road part of the roadtrip, but other than that, the rest of the trip seemed like some kind of a waste.
Stopping short somewhere along the incline, I got it. With no warning, I understood all of it. The Ancients did send their message, but it had come so subtly that I’d heeded it without even knowing it was there.
They were right again…
“Sometimes, the road is its own excuse.”
Sometimes, the road IS the reason.