Moab IV (Part 1)
We were going to leave work early.
Robin and I say that a lot, but this time it's serious - we have a lot of driving ahead of us, and as it is, we will be making camp in the dark. We are aware that the holiday weekend will drive competition for sites. Then, someone schedules a networking event at work.
"We'll come to work packed, go for one drink, and leave right after." We are optimistic.
Then, later: "I didn't have time to pack. We will go for one drink, pack tonight, and leave first thing in the morning." This is closer to the truth, but still generous.
We do not leave first thing in the morning - there are loose ends to tie up with packing, breakfast burritos to pre-make, coffee to drink. I drive to Denver, and help Robin load her things into my car. Cheerfully, we glance at the clock on the dash as we head west out of the city: only two hours late! (Our initial plan of leaving the night before is long forgotten at this point.)
Stereotypical roadtrip ensues: there are sweet snacks, salty snacks, sour snacks. We have water, caffeine, protein. The stereo churns out ballads, 90s tunes, current favorite jams, and we pass stories back and forth with ease, as if we have known each other for years rather than just a few months. We arrive without incident, unless you consider a traffic stop from a State Patrol Officer to be material fact. I am willing to overlook this, however, as he left me with a warning of the impending expiry of my vehicle registration and sent us on our way.
Our first-choice campsite is full, as are all further BLM campgrounds for the next twenty miles up Highway 279. We meet a similar situation up 128, and I hear anxiety tiptoeing into Robin's voice. Having visited several times in the past, I assure her that I know exactly where to go.
I have no clue, really.
On a whim, I take a right onto a wide, sun-bleached asphalt road. It was painted once, but now there are only darker strips of asphalt dotting the center of the road; probably eons had passed since the yellow faded, leaving only a barren sheath of sloping concrete behind. The Cruze cheerfully climbs a hill, banking to the right through an orphaned crevasse of sandstone split arbitrarily by the road which, for no apparent reason, could not have been constructed around the geologic outcrop. One of the few verdant areas in the entire desert region greets us, a spacious valley of farmland lined with enormous sandstone sentinels. The sun flirts with the horizon: daylight is slipping away.
With courage, I continue bravely for a few more miles, until we are finally greeted by a welcome sight: a square brown sign, marked with the unmistakable symbol of a tent. We find ourselves at the base of Castleton Tower, announced by an unmaintained trailhead placard bearing a handwritten note - Welcome, Climbers! We regret aloud not borrowing ropes from Robin's sister, but are comforted knowing we have our shoes and harnesses. We laugh about "making friends," but the first two climbers we encounter awkwardly joke about wag bags. We decide not to try to make any more friends.
The tent is a loaner and we struggle with its unfamiliarity; the stove is new and must be unwrapped. This is the inaugural camping trip for the year and it is painfully obvious. We somehow manage to prepare tofu and veggie kebabs marinated in peanut sauce - the burning skewers are only a minor setback (yes, we soaked them first. No, we did not soak for long enough). Exhausted, we relax into our (new) folding camp chairs, and admire the Tower ahead, glowing pink as the sun sets opposite.
Impressed with our cooking, a stray dog wanders into camp. She is nearly blind and nearly deaf, too thin and visibly aged. The desert is hot, especially today, when it peaked at over 100 degrees. The dog wears a collar with handwritten Sharpie: BELONGS TO CHEESEBURGER WOODY and a phone number. We try calling, but the line is disconnected. The dog must have a name - we try a few out, and she cocks her head at "Moose." We decide this is her name, and toss a few pieces of turkey her way. She is so thin, she must have been left outside for hours. Did she wander off, and couldn't hear her name being called? Did her owner abandon her? Was it an accident? We consider taking Moose to the local shelter in the morning.
When we awake, she is gone, and we decide Cheeseburger Woody must have been floating around camp after all.
This is Robin's first visit to Moab, so we cover the landmarks. We climb down into the bowl of Delicate Arch, far below the other tourists perched with cameras on the rim. We are children at play, clinging to the smooth, steep stone like Nature's playground.
Road construction in areas of the park have concentrated the traffic into a smaller area, and the crowds are suffocating. Crawling, we make our way back out of the park and up Highway 279, stopping at the Corona Arch trailhead. This is one of my favorite hikes in the area; for the first few miles, the desert looks unchanged for millennia, as if the shrubs hadn't so much as sighed since they last saw a dinosaur. Once you round the corner, you're transported to the set of an old Wild West film. Overlooking the railway, it's not impossible to imagine a distressed maiden tied to the tracks, or a cowboy rounding up a herd of wild horses.
Despite our resolution not to make new friends, we meet Frank and Diane, a newly retired couple from Maine who have adopted a nomadic lifestyle powered by RV. Frank has an impish twinkle in his eye as he describes their tricks for dodging campground fees and locating free showers; Diane corroborates his advice with suggestions for nearby places to pitch a tent and stories from their recent travels.
Relief is the Colorado River after an afternoon hike in the desert. Sufficiently salty from our efforts, we cross the highway and descend the riverbank to reach my favorite swimming hole. An older couple rests atop the bluff, settled into a pair of reclined camp chairs. They sport oversized sun hats and large sunglasses, but nonetheless, their faces are upturned toward the sun, each bearing an idle smile. As they slowly comprehend that we are preparing to jump into the water below, the woman casually indicates that she is impressed with our bravery. I assure them I only know this is safe to do here because I observed a gaggle of children doing the same a few years ago.
It doesn't take long to understand her implication - within moments, I am awash in a glacial sheet; the cold constricts my bones like a boa, hugging them close until it feels as though they are stabbing my organs. My lungs are paralyzed, my reliable doggy paddle desperate. The shore is 15 feet from the place where I jumped...it feels like a mile.
Soaked and shaking, we crawl back onto the bluff. The couple pretends not to notice. Robin and I spread out along our beach towels like the small golden lizards in the area, absorbing the stored heat of the stone from below and the blistering rays of sun from above.
Once we are dry, we are also hungry. The last stop of the day is Dead Horse Point, where we pull into an otherwise empty picnic area to prepare dinner. Robin strings a hammock between the columns of the pergola overhead; I unload the cooler. Sunburnt and sleepy, we feast on cold quinoa salad Robin brought from home. She falls asleep while I drink wine out of a bag and clean up. As the sun sinks lower, I shake her awake. "Come on!" I urge.
I head south, nimbly ducking under gnarled pinyons and hopping down rock embankments, trailing slightly toward the east. Fresh from a nap, Robin follows behind, quiet with contentment. Stepping over a patch of blooming cacti, we reach the edge of the "Mini Grand-Canyon." My friend's mouth falls open. As the sun stains the horizon a faint peach, we watch its rose reflection highlight the sandstone cliff, standing proudly against the sky as the Colorado dines languidly on its feet.
Sometimes we are betrayed by Memory, a thief spiriting away bits and pieces of our lives when our attention is directed elsewhere. Yet sometimes, we are blessed with the fortune of knowing that the present moment is cementing itself into our minds, preserving itself even as it forms.
I realize, as the Moon tucks the Sun in to bed, that this is one of those moments.
Exhausted and full, we head back to Castle Valley in the dark - vowing to break camp in the morning and pack it into the car with us, so we can wander on Sunday with no agenda. We will sleep wherever we end up.