everyone wants to let a little wild out sometimes
We had unfinished business in Moab, Utah. Unconquered arches called to us from our campsite in Arizona. With no set travel plans, we packed up and began our journey across sun-scorched, red-rocked landscapes to settle up with Arches National Park.
Spontaneous travel has its pitfalls. We often risk not finding a campsite in our chosen destination when we roll into town without reservations. As soon as the cell phone gained coverage, I began calling every campground near Moab, in hopes of finding an unclaimed site. After several rejections, I figured we'd be boondocking. We approached Slickrock Campground with little hope.
Entering the office, I was greeted by a ferocious feline who held me at bay while the woman at the front desk helped the camper ahead of me. Curling his black tail around my legs, he brushed against me with a purr that spoke volumes of his personality. I was properly warned: behind the front desk a sign was posted, notifying campers to "Beware of the Guard Cat". While he did his best to deter me, I finally made my way to the woman behind the desk.
While hotel staff are generally uniform in attire and dialog, campground staff are as diverse as the landscape of our magnificent country. My host was no exception. Beautifully unique, she smiled through a pierced lip, tucking back an unruly curl that had broken free from the bandana meant to contain what couldn't be tamed by a braid. The ink on her arms told stories, and I would have inquired, had I not been so distracted by our lack of accommodations.
Thankfully sites were available, and I began my usual negotiation process. As Good Sam members, we were already privileged to a discount, but I always try to get the best deal possible. Asking if additional breaks were available to firefighters, her dark eyes lit up.
"My brother is a smoke-jumper! I am so appreciative of all those guys do. How 'bout I give you another 10% off?"
We set up camp quickly, and scarfed down dinner at ravenous speed. We knew daylight was giving way to the dark skies of night, and we intended to see some arches before bed. As we snaked up the switchbacks at the entrance to the park, the sun dipped behind the western mountains, leaving only a glow to remind us of its departure. The temperatures cooled, and we rolled down the windows to enjoy the refreshing air that came rushing into the truck. Sticking her head out of the vehicle in canine-like fashion, my free-spirited daughter kicked her head back to let out a primitive howl. Giggles filled our cab, and she dared us to join in. Of course we obliged; everyone wants to let a little wild out sometimes.
We parked, immediately noticing the eerie silence. Little beams of light and the crunch of desert floor beneath four sets of sneakers was all that identified us against the vastness of night. The trail turned, leading us between spires of rock that dimmed what moonlight existed. Trudging through deep sand, we huffed and puffed as we dove deeper into the rocks whose shapes were hidden behind the dark curtain of night.
It's amazing how a short .4 mile trail can seem like a trek across the sahara with no light to give perspective. When we finally reached the arch, we were victors, celebrating the long-anticipated quest. Hoots of joy rose above the canyon walls, and we momentarily forgot about life beyond them. All that existed was us and a conquered arch.
Not every adventure turns out the way you plan it. Sometimes you miss your goal altogether. Sometimes it takes more than one attempt to accomplish what you set out to do. That night solidified a deep truth for our family: it's not about the destination, but the memories you make getting there.
Entering the area surrounding Arches National Park seemed other-worldly. Awed by the uniquely shaped rocks, we shouted out, "that one looks like a sleeping bear," or "I see E.T. in that one!", much like one would lying on their backs to watch clouds take form. Only we were not ready to lie around. Red rocks, river-gorged canyons, and legendary arches begged us to come explore.
Our spontaneous trip had already been chock-full of adventure: the spouting geysers of Yellowstone and the pristine beauty of the Tetons were checked off our list, but we were hungry for more. Thanks to the Every Kid in a Park initiative, our free entrance into the National Parks afforded us the ability to see as many parks as we could in our two week escape from reality.
Coming into Moab, Utah on the second of July meant that we risked not finding a camping site due to the influx of visitors that vacationed around the holiday. Searching for campgrounds ended successfully, and without the camper in-tow, we set out in search of arches. The summer heat often exceeds 100 degrees, but we were blessed by a blanket of storm clouds that offered reprieve from the baking desert sun. We explored Balanced Rock and began to get a taste of just how fascinating this park really was. However, we came to see arches, and the impending storm and late evening hours meant we had to keep moving, in order to see the park's most famous arch.
As we pulled into the parking lot at Wolfe Ranch, we gathered water bottles, laced our hiking boots, and wasted no time trekking towards our destination. The trail that led to an up close and personal view of Delicate Arch was a moderate three-mile hike, which we reasoned very doable for our pre-teen kids. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, we began to debate whether we could make it to the arch with the remaining twilight hovering in the sky. "You still have quite a distance to go," was the not-so-encouraging remark from a nearby hiker who noticed our lack of lighting and dwindling water supply. A quick family discussion ended with a disappointing 180, and an undiscovered arch. Not all was lost, however, as lightning bolts shot across the sky in magnificent display.
The storm passed quickly, and the remaining light gave way to the darkness of night. Our adventure-hungry family wasn't about to call it quits because of a few limitations, so we continued our journey deeper into the park and into the night. Consulting the map, we decided that Broken Arch was something we could surely find in the dark. After all, it was only .3 mile off the road. We were certain that our cell phone flashlights were electronic flares to light our way. However, in a place void of light pollution, they were no more helpful than the glow from a lightning bug's back side. With the moon hidden behind the clouds, navigating trails in utter darkness made us question whether we were daring or dangerous in our plight for the arches. At once the sound of other's voices gave us hope that we might have found our destination. Between us and the body-less voices stood a wall of rock too sheer to climb. The voices instructed us to go into the campground and follow the trail there, which would lead right to the arch. "It's easy," they promised.
Driving into Devil's Garden Campground, we briefly envied the campers who had made reservations well in-advance, guaranteeing them a site during the holiday influx. As we set out in our third attempt to experience the grandeur of an arch, we said a quick prayer for the batteries to hold out on our cell phone-turned flashlights. We soon became aware of the dangers that lie underfoot, as sand gave way to rocks, which dropped without warning into seemingly bottomless pits. Lights flickered ahead, and the body-less voices sang out through the darkness. We shouted to our new friends, and they gave the same promise that an easy route lay just ahead of us. We searched for this path with trepidation, hoping our friends would have pity for us and come show us the way. Alas, they served only as a lighthouse, proudly anchored upon their discovered arch.
There's a moment when you know you've been defeated, and our moment had come. The illusive arches lay unconquered in the dark, but we did not return to our campsite with heads hung in shame. Making the most of our time in this thoroughly wild place, we parked along the road and shut off the truck. Beckoning our hesitant kids from the safety of steel, we encouraged them to experience being in complete darkness in such a remote place. As we climbed out of the truck, my husband heard a rustle in the sagebrush next to us. I quickly dismissed the rustle until it got louder, and bigger. We breathlessly scrambled into the safety of the cab, giggling with excitement. While it may have been a jackrabbit, in our minds we had just missed an encounter with a hungry mountain lion.
Even if we were not victorious in our search for arches, our adventures in the park would never be forgotten. The stories we earned through our quest were the making of legends. And with unconquered arches still on our list, we have reason enough to return. The National Parks are our nation's finest treasures. Far greater than any material possession, every person gains great wealth when they experience them first hand.
Born with a severe case of wanderlust, I'm always searching for new adventures and sharing those stories here.