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.
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. 

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.

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 feet.
 

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. 
 
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.

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, black trees.

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. 

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.

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 dark anymore.

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 Flagstaff.

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.

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. 
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.
 
  
Prologue Aug. 24  Aug. 25 Aug. 26 Aug. 27 Aug. 28 
 Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday Monday
Sept.6 Sept. 7 Sept. 8  Sept. 9 & Epilogue
Original content (c)opyright 2011 by Tim Frayser
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