Wednesday, October 13
This day ended 283 miles away from where it started. In ‘Canadian’, that’s 458 kilometres. Not the longest stretch of driving I had done lately, but somehow this 12-hour haul felt like a year and a day.
The last few hours of the drive led us through some of the most rural terrain I had ever travelled. We pressed on through an empty desert, nary a porch light, star or moon to interrupt the inky horizon. The gas tank needle met the quarter tank mark and slowly crept toward empty. There were no towns between us and our destination; an observation that I tried to push to my mind’s periphery. And what would be there when we arrived? Surely, there would be a gas station.
Finally…we pulled into a blip on the map called Mexican Hat and checked into what I would nominate as the least remarkable motel in America. Despite the fatigue of driving lonely highways in the dark, I’d struggle to fall asleep, because tomorrow was a day I was very much anticipating: a visit to mystic Monument Valley in Navajo Nation.
But let’s back up a bit to Wednesday morning, because unlike that motel, it was truly remarkable.
We woke to a first on our trip: frost. The chilly morning validated our decision to find lodging rather than camp. At this point on our roadtrip, it was becoming pretty apparent that as long as we could locate a modest motel, we’d be opting for WiFi, beds and warm showers.
We peeled out of the Panguitch Rodeway Inn, grabbed gas station coffee and closed the short distance to Bryce Canyon National Park. Along the way we passed beneath the iconic arches of Red Canyon and through Dixie National Forest. It occurred to me that if Disney were to sketch a forest, it’d be pretty-as-a-picture Dixie National Forest.
Reaching Bryce Canyon National Park, I immediately felt at home. The dry pine forest and timber-and-stone construct of Bryce Canyon Lodge distinctly reminded me of Banff. We quickly booked a two-hour trail ride and inhaled breakfast at the lodge’s buffet. (Out of necessity, not preference.)
I’ll admit, standing in the corral, I hadn’t considered that my noble steed might be a mule. In fact, I didn’t know cowboys rode mules. Or that mules could be bigger and more surefooted than horses. I figured as long as Socks could get me from the lip of Bryce Canyon, 1,000 feet down to the canyon floor and then back again, who was I to judge? Our guide, Joe, told me to, “Ride it like you stole it” and I’d like to say that I did, but I’d be embellishing. Mostly I held on and gave Socks the odd hurry up! boot to the belly. If I was worried about hurting her, my concern was misdirected; I’d be saddle sore for the next week.
We nosed down the trail’s steep switchbacks, taking pause as Joe told us about the local flora. He pointed out suggestively shaped hoodoos and told us groan-inducing jokes, just the type you’d expect from a half-baked cowpoke.
Joe also told us how the iron in the spires attracts lightning, making Bryce Canyon a terrible place to be during a storm. He then enlightened us with a very interesting fact: that the Native Americans never travelled into Bryce Canyon. They feared if they passed through, they would be turned to stone men. (Their explanation for the hoodoos that litter the park.)
Following our trail ride we skirted the rim of the Bryce Canyon Amphitheatre. Knowing we had many miles to cover today, we quickly hustled the 1.3-mile Navajo Loop.
We dipped down toward the canyon floor, descending down switchbacks. We passed a small stand of Douglas fir trees, cast in golden light. Further on we slipped up a narrow slot; yet another made-by-nature ‘Wall Street’.
Peeling ourselves away from Bryce Canyon was not easy.
“Just one more shot!” my mind shouted. Surely I hadn’t captured that spire yet, had I? I drank in the view one last time.
We passed by the Bryce Canyon Lodge for the last time and I swooned over the outbuildings. There was something so romantic about the property’s rustic construction. In that moment I promised myself I’d be back.
Before we left Bryce, we ran some errands and picked up some provisions. It was high time we cleaned out the cooler which was holding a few litres of melted ice and spilled veggie dip. (Gross.) Half a case of beer bobbed about, slick with oil. We weren’t even annoyed about the mess; mostly we deplored ourselves for attending a three-day music festival and failing to consume our single shared case of beer. Real party animals we are. (What we didn’t know then, was that we’d be crossing back into Canada with five surviving cans.)
The rest of the afternoon passed slowly. We drove northeast through Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, not quite realizing it was more of a region than attraction. Grand Staircase, is in fact, a series of plateaus that descend from Bryce Canyon south toward the Grand Canyon.
We made a quick tour of Escalante Petrified Forest State Park before pushing on to Anasazi State Park Museum, which we had confused for an actual Anasazi Village. Disappointed, we continued on.
The upside of driving this route to Monument Valley – rather than south via US-89 – meant we were able to visit another national park: Capitol Reef NP.
Once we left Capitol Reef the landscape changed dramatically. The horizon flattened, the sky darkened and it seemed everything was draped in a dull grey. The terrain became almost otherworldly.
We cruised along Highway 24 towards Hanksville. Looking north I noticed a huge butte off in the distance. I’m not sure why, but its appearance chilled me. It looked like a sinister stone submarine – a ghost ship – pushing its way through Earth’s surface. I was transfixed yet totally haunted by it. Later, I’d retrace our trip on Google Earth to discover it has a name: Factory Butte.
I didn’t find any record of others being spooked by it, but I did notice that my otherworldly observation wasn’t so far off. Just a stone’s throw from Hanksville is a Mars Desert Research Station.
At Hanksville we turned south, plunging us into an empty landscape. Dusk fell soon thereafter and we drove into that lonely night.
Have you visited Bryce Canyon National Park? Were you as enchanted as I was? Let me know, comment below!