Wednesday, July 20, 2011

We Don’t Need No Stinking Arches

My father is a hero. When my computer crapped out on Friday night, he offered to send me the spare that used to belong to my sister. Not just send it, he offered to overnight it! So it’s thanks to him that I can recount to you my enthralling tale of my day at Arches National Park.
Double Arch. Look familiar?
It should, if you've seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
At both Zion and Bryce, there came a point in the afternoon when I had completed all my plans for the day, and I either had to wing it, or just kill time for a while. Today, I decided to do a pre-emptive strike on that problem by sleeping later and not leaving for Arches until 10:00. Plus, any plan that allows me to get over 8 hours of sleep for the first time on this trip is a good plan.

Arches being my third and a half national park on this trip, I’ve established a sort of routine for visiting these places. Give the ranger at the entrance gate my special pass, then feel good about saving a boatload of money for a while, then stop at the visitor center to decide on any details of the day I haven’t already planned. For example, today’s itinerary was basically “drive around the park all day, but make sure you do the Delicate Arch trail at sunset.” The visitor center helped me figure out what was worth hiking to and what wasn’t, since I wanted to save my energy for the big evening hike (but more on that later).

I realized, driving to one of the earlier destinations this morning, that each national park day feels a lot like Shabbat at camp. At Kutz, after lunch on Shabbat I would decide on some scheduled activities I wanted to do, and then for the rest of the time I would just do whatever else I wanted (note that both of those include the word “want”). Today at the visitor center, I decided that I wanted to do a ranger-led activity before lunch, the Delicate Arch trail at sunset, and go look at whatever else I wanted in between. A nice relaxing yet full day.

The only snafu in the plan today was the ranger-led walk through the Windows. I timed my stops at the other viewpoints, like the Cathedral Towers, Balanced Rock, and Park Avenue so that I’d get to the Windows area in time to meet the ranger there.

Balanced Rock

Although I was there at the prescribed time, there was no ranger leading a talk or a walk. I’m pretty sure they weren’t there and it wasn’t just my poor vision not being able to find them. Rangers wear pretty distinctive hats, and they’d be the only people in the park today wearing long pants. No flat-brimmed, long-panted people walking around with a gaggle of tourists following them. I decided to walk the trail anyway, despite wanting to save my hiking energy for later, hoping that maybe I was just late and I would run into the ranger’s group along the way. Unfortunately I never found them, which is a shame because the last ranger program I attended was great (and thanks to the blessed Ken Burns, now I kind of see these guys as the rock stars of the park system). Nevertheless, the trail wasn’t too difficult and it was early in the day so I had time to recover, and I got some cool pictures.

North Window

Turret Arch

South Window
Throughout the morning, the one thought that kept coming up was that this really was the desert. I thought I was going to have to wait until I got to Monument Valley to see the “classic” American southwest landscape, but Arches certainly fit the bill, complete with mesas, buttes, sand (very fine sand, by the way, which easily penetrates through socks), and lots of desert-looking plants. The problem with realizing that this was the real-life desert was that the next thought was that if I get lost or if something goes wrong, I’ll die and be eaten by lizards. So far it hasn’t come to that, though.

By the early afternoon, I had once again driven to all the interesting vistas that I could find, and had done a few mild hikes. Once again, I was out of things to do. This time, though, I thought back to what I did when this happened in Bryce. There, I stopped back in at my campsite to make an early dinner, and then went back out later. So I basically did the same thing today. I knew there was a new-ish computer waiting for me back at the hotel, which was only 4 miles from the park, so I went back there and uploaded my Bryce Canyon blog post (2 bonus points for anyone who noticed that Blogger says it was posted on Sunday even though it was really posted today). I had lunch and enjoyed the air-conditioned respite from the 95 degree temperatures outside, and then at 5:00 I headed back out for Delicate Arch.

I had seen Delicate Arch, the world’s most famous arch and the symbol of the park, the state of Utah, and the American desert, earlier in the day from a viewpoint a mile away.

I knew I was coming back to see it much closer up, but I wanted to make sure I saw it at least once in case I got lost and was eaten by lizards before I saw it again. The hike to Delicate Arch is described as “moderately strenuous,” since there’s a 480-foot climb from the trailhead to the arch over a 1.5-mile distance, and the trail has no shade at all. Given my failure at the Watchman Trail at Zion the other day, I had my doubts that I’d be able to pull this one off. The most difficult hike I had completed at Zion was the Canyon Overlook hike, which was only listed as “moderate” there. Plus there was shade there, and it wasn’t quite as hot since I did it earlier in the day.

Luckily, while I was back at the hotel, a line of thunderstorms rolled past the Moab area. It didn’t hit us directly, which was a good thing, because that meant the slickrock on the trail wouldn’t be too slippery. Somehow, though, just coming close by the park was enough for the storms to drop the temperature from the high 90’s down to 82. Couple that with the strong breeze that often accompanies threatening storms, and I was in for a pleasant hike.

Did I say pleasant? I meant doable. The first third of the trail wound its way through dry stream beds and over boulders. Not too bad. The second part involved a steep climb up the side of an exposed hill at an angle so great that I found it difficult to find stable places to stop for water breaks. The final third looked flat, but it really continued to gain elevation until, at the very last minute, I turned a corner and came face to face with the world-famous 52-foot tall arch.

Note the human, for scale.
Since I had started this hike relatively early for sunset, I had time to relax and wait for the light on the arch to start firing up. As I sat, marveling at the 4 bars of phone service I had at such a remote place, others began trickling into the area. Some even came from the other side of the ridge I had taken, which was strange because that side looked to me like a 200-foot sheer cliff. Many of them took turns standing under the arch while someone very far away took their picture, which presumably all came out as a big old arch with a little dot standing underneath.

Eventually, the shadows began creeping towards the arch, throwing its immediate surroundings into relative darkness and highlighting the bright orange of the arch’s sandstone.

A few minutes before sunset, the sun dipped behind a cloud, effectively ending the light show. With that, most of us got up to leave and take the much less strenuous downhill hike back to the parking lot.
The way down. I wasn't a fan when it was still the way up.
As we all got in our cars and lined up to leave the park, another parallel came to mind. Sunsets at these parks are quite similar to concerts, in many ways. Everyone knows when it’s supposed to start and where it’s going to be, so they meander in slowly, chatting idly until the main act takes the stage. Then, they all focus on the event at hand until, suddenly, it’s over and we all get up to leave at the same time. We walk to the “parking lot” or trailhead or whatever, connected by the fact that we all just saw this amazing sight together, and that no one who wasn’t there can claim to have done it. Then, of course, it takes forever to get out of the parking lot and we all go our separate ways.

Next time, though, an encore might be nice.

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