I woke once to go to the bathroom, the Moon low in the southwest. I walked
slowly-- as quiet as the campsite was, every step on the gravel road sounded
like a symphony. I crawled back into my sleeping bag… I opened my eyes
long enough to see the eastern sky a hot, rosy pink… The Sun was up when
I got up at 7 AM. I’d slept for almost 10 hours and felt really good. A
bunny no bigger than my fist hopped across my path as I went to the bathrooms.
Twitchy, fast little packrats made explored the outer edges of my camp.
I figured it was a good idea to keep the van doors closed. I kept disturbing
a wasp that was trying to nest in the water spigot.
The candlelight neighbors had a line of wet clothes out to dry when I went
to the showers. They were packed up and gone when I returned. I cooked
up a Tasty Bites meal for breakfast—very filling. I watched many early-risers
pull their RVs out and leave the campsite. All around me, the rocks were
twisted and bloated into magical shapes. Not even halfway through morning,
and it was already getting hot. The air was dry, the sky was clear. There
was no wind at all.
I was eating breakfast when a park ranger stopped by to visit. It turns
out campers were supposed to pay at the campsites they end up at, not at
the park entrance like I’d done. He admitted the signage was confusing.
He suggested I take it easy and enjoy the park. “It’s only going to get
up to 100 today,” he said. It was a quick pack-up and I was on the road
by 8:35. I’d driven 2,734 miles since leaving Broken Arrow, and I still
had to get home.
The park was amazing. I loved all the twisty, turny rocks all over the
place. Just when you think you’ve missed a shot of some amazing rock formation,
here would come another one. I kept thinking, This place is wonderful!
Why didn’t more people know about it? I stopped at the visitor’s center,
which had very comprehensive displays on the geology and history of the
area. There were no water sources at all inside the park, but there were
a couple of places where rain water would collect, and sometimes stick
around for months. I was a little surprised there was no gift shop.Nothing
was for sale, not even postcards. All they had was a closed-off area where
a gift shop would be. I spoke to one of the rangers, who said they had
a hard time having people come out to run a gift shop because the park
was so remote. It turned out the park itself was forbidden by law to make
money, as in profits from a gift shop. All it was allowed to make money
on was camp fees. So, they had to lobby the state legislature to pass a
bill to change the law just to let them open a gift shop. The park
personnel were excited about it. “We hope to have it open by October,”
the lady said.
I took off down a narrow canyon towards the White Domes. It was a “campsite”
I’d originally planned on camping at, but it turned out to be yet another
“day use only” site. The drive was hypnotizing. The rocks bulged and twisted
in unearthly shapes. They were like gargoyles designed by jellyfish. Coming
back, I went by the 7 Sisters site in a much better mood than I saw them
the previous evening.
Much of the little park road was labled 25 MPH, and they mean it. Going
any faster would be too dangerous. I headed towards the eastern side of
the park, and got a shock when I came over a hill: a bout two dozen people,
just walking in the road! It was a tour group from a big bus parked at
the Elephant Rock trailhead. After they left, I found it was a 1.8 mile
hike to Elephant Rock… which I wanted to see, but the morning was getting
late. I figured I’d save it for my next visit to Valley of Fire. It was
another place I promised myself I would return to.
It was 10:30 playa time when I found the interstate and headed northeast--
25 miles to Mesquite. I got passed by what looked like an airline shuttle
as the highway went through some impressive cuts. At Mesquite, I pulled
off the road and stopped at the Chevron station. That’s where I got $30
worth of gas and 2 Dr. Peppers (they had a sale). Mesquite lies right on
the Nevada border, so there were lots of casinos. The Casa Blanca Casino
had an impressive waterfall out front. I found my MP3 player, which was
all in pieces. I remembered it had fallen and broke apart when I was trying
to pay my Valley of Fire camping fee, and I just threw the pieces in the
back. I got it working again.
||The eastward road took me out of the park and right to the Lake Meade
Recreational Area. That’s where I turned north. It was 9 miles to the little
town of Overton.
Man, that was one big... rooster.
A car came close to sideswiping me as it left a parking lot. There were
no direction signs on the road, but I just kept heading north and figured
I’d eventually run into Interstate 15. I passed the Moapa Valley Library
and Lou Street (not a person, a street named Lou). Horses grazed in a field
next to Paint Horse Lane.
Back on the interstate, very high mountains loomed ahead. I crossed
the Arizona state line a few miles down the road. The interstate went through
the breathtaking Virgin River Gorge, with towering, violent cliffs. I’d
never heard of it before. Thirty miles past the Arizona border I crossed
into Utah. About 40 miles from Mesquite, the elevation had risen to 3,000
It was 54 miles to Fredonia. This was unexplored territory for me, a road
I’d never been on before. A big, white pickup zoomed past me. Excuse
me for going the speed limit, I thought. The highway took me along
a line of steep cliffs to my left. In contrast, on the right side of the
road, the land swept away into gentle rolling prairie. Cedars abounded
in the pleasant, green valley.
||It was just after noon when I got off the interstate and took the road
towards Hurricane. At least, I thought it was the road... I had to stop
at a convenience store for directions. I was directed to turn left at the
next intersection, then follow Highway 9 into Hurricane. I needed to go
east from there, so the girl told me to turn right at the Wells Fargo Bank.
And son of a gun, there it was. At the bank, I turned right on Highway
59. The road made a sharp left, then took me up the steep slopes of the
bluff overlooking the town. The narrow, climbing road gave me a panoramic
view of the valley before it turned east.
When I crossed the Arizona border at Colorado City, Highway 59 became
Highway 389, which must be confusing for some travelers. Traffic picked
up on the crowded little 2-lane blacktop. I crossed back over into Arizona.
Just after 1 PM, I entered the Kaibab Paiute Reservation. It was a bright,
sunny day, the miles easily rolling by. I was getting close to Grand Canyon
country. Signs on the side of the road advertised the north rim. A pale
violet ridge appeared ahead. I crossed over a creekbed full of strange,
By 2 PM, I had climbed to an elevation of 6,000 feet… and Satori was starting
to act funny again. Acceleration was off, and the engine seemed to be struggling.
Luckily, there was a rest stop up ahead. It was the LaFevre Scenic Lookout,
elevation 6,700 feet. Satori was running very hot when I pulled into the
parking lot. Several Native Americans had set up stands selling jewelry,
crafts and pottery. I asked one of the ladies if the elevation got any
lower up ahead. She shook her head. “It just keeps going up,” she said.
I tried to relax, admiring the view, and made a pit stop waiting for the
engine to cool down. It was cloudy out, the air kind of muggy. I gave it
about 10 minutes, then took off again.
The thick, ponderosa pine forest rose high along the highway. The road
did indeed rise to an elevation of 7,000 feet before leveling out. Over
one hill, I saw a highway patrol cruiser beside the road. His lights came
on right as I passed him. I wondered what I could’ve been doing wrong.
I checked my speed and kept watching my rear view mirror, but wherever
he was going it wasn’t after me. I passed the turn for passed Jacob Lake,
the jump-off point for people exploring the north rim. At 7,921 feet, there
was a gas station at the intersection.
||Fredonia was sleepy and quiet when I rolled into town. That was where
I turned right on Highway 89… but I wasn’t completely sure until I backtracked
a mile or so. I passed the vintage Grand Canyon Motel ("Free Wireless Internet")
and a store advertising “Guns, Ammo, Beer.”
Past Fredonia, the highway quickly turned into a very lonely road. I’d
go for a half hour or more before seeing another vehicle. There was no
shoulder to the lonesome 2-lane highway. I soon entered the Kaibab National
Forest, though the forest starts out as just a few bushes here and there
alongside the highway. Cedar and ponderosa pines congregated quickly all
around me as I kept going. I was on the Kaibab Plateau, which hugs the
north rim of the Grand Canyon.
The air was very cool. Satori’s engine started running better, and I
knew I was over the hump. The Sun came out. It was a lovely, peaceful forest,
the air sweet. I started seeing rocks between the trees, and then cliffs,
and then, up ahead, a splash of distant red. It was the Vermillion Cliffs,
rising out of the plain below like something from a Tolkien novel. I pulled
over at a rest area for a view. There were more Native American vendors
selling crafts beside the road, and it was interesting seeing them haggle
with the Japanese tourists. Signs at the rest area talked about local wildlife.
I nibbled on a can of nuts and finished off the last of the Triscuits.
Far below, a tiny thread stretched across the wide, dry valley. It was
the road I drove down to off the heights of the Kaibab Plateau.
Down in the valley, I passed abandoned, wind-swept farm houses as the cliffs
loomed to the north. The road passed in review in front of the cliffs before
turning northeast towards Marble Canyon. A sign said one mile of the highway
was adopted by “’Scary’ Larry.” A roadside attraction offered a view of
ancient cliff dwellings (that didn’t look all that “ancient”). The town
of Vermillion Cliffs seemed to be nothing more than a motel. Two miles
later, I stopped in the town of Marble Canyon. I pulled into the big gas
station and got $20 worth of gas ($3.79 a gallon). I consulted a map. My
original destination that evening was Chinle, Arizona, because I had been
wanting to visit Canyon de Chelly. It was something I’d planned on the
whole trip. I would spend a day exploring the canyon, then work my way
towards Gallup to spend the night before heading home. Problem was, the
map said it was 219 miles to Chinle, almost a 4-hour drive. The database
on my smartphone said sunset in Chinle would be in two hours. It would
be after dark when I arrived. I really didn’t like driving after
I asked the clerk at the gas station if there were any campgrounds around
Tuba City, and he just shook his head. It didn’t look good. Marble Canyon
was where the famous Navajo Bridge crossed the Colorado River, so I pulled
into the visitor center. The outside was built to look like an old ruined
adobe building. Inside, I asked the nice lady if there was a place to camp
for the night ahead: a roadside park, campground, state park, anything.
She said to just pull off the road and park wherever I wanted. “Really?”
I asked, and she said yes, “People will leave you alone.” I bought a souvenir
patch and left feeling… well, I didn’t know how I felt.
The bridge itself was thrilling. On the far side, I was in the Navajo Nation.
The road turned south, following a range of sharp bluffs that could have
been the background of a Road Runner cartoon. Along the highway were
scattered spots where vendors had set up roadside booths for gifts and
crafts. Some were empty, abandoned, and all had flat areas for parking
out front. It looked like it would be entirely possible to just pull over
and camp overnight at one of the empty areas. The nice lady at the visitor
center said to just be sure you’re not on the road—that would be dangerous.
Just pull off the road and park. The idea was tempting. It would
certainly put me in a position to head for Canyon de Chelly first thing
in the morning. On the other hand, just parking on somebody else’s land
and camping there without permission seemed wrong, impolite... rude.
I was thinking it over when I got to Bitter Springs. At the intersection,
the highway north led to Page, and the highway south led to Tuba City and…
Flagstaff, 110 miles away. Flagstaff had a hostel where I could sleep in
a real bed, get a hot shower, eat a hot meal sitting at a table. Those
options were very tempting, too. I checked the smartphone, which said Chinle
was a 3-hour trip from Flagstaff, over mostly familiar roads. I could still
make it-- just with a slight detour. A full stomach and a good night’s
sleep would let me make a logical decision. So, I turned south, towards
The landscape was very colorful, with many outcroppings of stone. The
stark landscape of the west never disappoints me. I passed the Highway
160 interchange, the turnoff for Tuba City, and kept going. At a quarter
after 5 I went through Gray Mountain, where all the businesses seemed to
be closed. (Not to be confused with Grey Mountain, which is west of Flagstaff.)
I found a Flagstaff radio station. The weather report said it would 43
degrees that night, with a chance of “monsoon storms” on Thursday. Maybe
it wasn’t a good night to camp out, after all. The radio station also said
that day would’ve been Buddy Holly’s 75th birthday.
Mountains loomed ahead. I passed the exit for Wupatki, and wished I had
time to visit again. I loved that place. Satori started to complain again
as the elevation increased the closer I got to Flagstaff. A beautiful Moon
rose in the east. At the Sunset Crater exit, the elevation was 7,276 feet,
but fell away as I rolled into Flagstaff just before 6 PM. The Sun was
setting as I drove through town and found the DuBeau Hostel. It felt good
to be out of the car, not moving. In the lobby, I paid my $24 for the night
(plus $5 key deposit, which I’d get back). I dropped my stuff in my bunk,
took a long, hot, wonderful shower, and then cooked myself a can of soup
in the kitchen.
Back in the dorm room, I met up with Francisco. He was from Barcelona,
Spain, but now lived in Berkley. He would eventually be moving to Boston
to study at MIT. He was traveling, wanting to see America while he was
“on holiday,” but travel by bus was really expensive. Francisco had been
searching Craigslist for a car to buy, thinking $2,000 would get him something
drivable. He had a good idea of where he wanted to go, but was daunted
by the distances. He said the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco
was almost the width of his country. “Everything is so big!” he said. Francisco
wanted to see the Grand Canyon, and wondered if you could hike down and
back up again in one day. He was also interested in going to Albuquerque
to see the Atomic Museum. (I noticed he was reading a biography of J. Robert
Oppenheimer.) He also wanted to visit the Trinity Site, where the first
atomic bomb was detonated, but was surprised when I told him the site was
only open to the public two days out of the year. (I knew, because I wanted
to go sometime, too.) When he left to go somewhere, he packed his stuff
in his backpack and took it all with him.
After hanging up, I sat down to do some math. From Flagstaff to Chinle
and then hiking Canyon de Chelly, it would be 8 hours, then another 3 hours
to an RV park in Grants, New Mexico. From Grants, it would be another 12
hours to get back home. That made for two long days. Another important
factor was money. I was dangerously low on cash. We’d just gotten out of
credit card debt, and putting anything on the credit card, even food, at
that point, seemed wrong. The other option was to skip Canyon de Chelly
and just go home. Sooooo, it looked like no Canyon de Chelly that
trip. I decided to decide in the morning, but I’d really already decided.
I didn't feel bad. The decision just gave me something to look forward
to the next time I was in the area. The weather report looked like rain
was coming in, and would most likely follow me home. I settled into my
bunk for the night, and had no trouble at all falling asleep.
|More guys showed up to spend the night in the dorm room. There was
a guy from Phoenix and two Japanese tourists. I met a French girl in the
kitchen. Flagstaff was a college town, and some students stayed at the
hostel until they could find an apartment. I called home. It was a shock
to hear my nephew broke his leg! That was terrible.
Original content (c)opyright 2011 by Tim Frayser