My objectives: explore the desert, get acclimated to the heat, build back some running stamina without aggravating injuries, continue to condition the feet. The goal isn’t to overdo things, but still to do a lot, and this requires an aggressive tempo of operations: breakfast, run or hike, dinner, plan the next day’s activities, bed — repeat. The planning is time-consuming: there’s an overwhelming volume of information on the internet, and not all of equal quality. My best source turns out to be the motel clerk who’s been exploring this area with his wife for the last ten years.
Arriving in Moab, Utah toward the end of July, car thermometer reading 100 F, windows down and a/c off (to help me acclimate), yellow sand and orange cliffs swimming in late afternoon haze. After a quick beer at a local brewery, it’s time to check in at the motel (the cheapest available), and begin planning the next day’s hikes at Arches National Park, located a couple of miles north of town and thus every tourist’s first destination.
En route from Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon National Park, stopping at the visitor center in Escalante, Utah (population 797) to meet a friend who by coincidence is traveling in the reverse direction, wondering how to spend the afternoon, and the Ranger here has a suggestion: hike in along the Escalante River. It’s not one of the trails marketed to the tourist crowd, in fact it’s not an official trail at all, not shown on maps, and remarkably not even listed in the popular apps. Just be mindful of flash flooding.
My friend arrives, we spend a hour catching up, compare notes on the best hikes in the area, and then resume our separate journeys. I stare at the map on the wall and ponder a place called Death Hollow, whose creek flows into the Escalante about seven miles in.
I find two maps to download on my phone and a vintage topographic map to buy (it’s paper and needs to be folded to fit in a pocket — how quaint!), fill out the necessary back-country permit, lay out gear and pack it up, charge my phone while eating a hamburger and baked beans, and head off to the trailhead, one eye on the clouds massing in the west….
What caught my attention after the four-hour drive from Salt Lake City, once I’d reached Moab and was motoring along Route 191 through the center of town, passing all those restaurants, curiosity shops, and tour operators, was the line of mountains rising in the southeast.
The next morning saw me hiking out to the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park (isn’t this every tourist’s first stop?) — when here were those mountains again, with a mushroom cloud bubbling above, as if the peaks had pierced the winds and cast the atmosphere into turbulence.
And then a day later, from the high point in Hidden Valley, here they were once again, gazing at me with curiosity across thirty-five miles of hot sand and haze.