The desert in summer has a beauty, but it is a subtle beauty. Part of its appeal is its essential featurelessness. But for the occasional sprinklings of Joshua trees and other close-to-the-ground dun-colored scrub, the desert is nothing but sand, the many-colored but utterly barren mountain ridges that ring the horizon in every direction, sky of a singularly deep blue, and the hot, clear, brilliant sun. The vistas are huge and panoramic; they don't merely dwarf their constituent parts, they swallow them up. Las Vegas, which admittedly has fantastical elements that would make it unlikely in any setting, seems altogether chimerical within two minutes after it disappears from the rearview mirror.
Between Las Vegas and the northeast Nevada-Arizona border (pat yourself on the back if you knew that a corner of Arizona pokes up between Nevada and Utah), there is almost nothing but limitless desert. But for the road, it's probably looked the same for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of years. Well, the road and Mesquite, Nevada, a tacky, hopeful Las Vegas wanna-be. In the summer as it shimmers in the heat, Mesquite seems particularly well named - it looks to be possible to grill a steak on virtually every rooftop, roadway and other sun-scorched surface.
The little spit of Arizona changes everything. Suddenly, the road winds and climbs and the mountains close in. The sun is just as intense, the mountains just as orange and craggy, but the perspective is now primarily vertical rather than horizontal. It is a fitting introduction to Utah, one of the most extravagantly beautiful places on earth.
The diversity of Utah's topography is astonishing; it offers everything from arid desert to dense alpine forests to verdant pastures thousands of feet in the air to fantasy lands of iron-rich sandstone and pearly limestone. Its five national parks - more, I believe, than in any other state - span a tiny band right at the top of the quality spectrum, from the eye-popping splendor of Zion and Arches to the out-of-this-world glory of Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands.
Interstate 15, which starts in Los Angeles and goes north, by way of Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, all the way to the Canadian border, was well placed. It occupies the only ugly and boring cylinder of space in Utah. We leave it behind at the first opportunity and wend our way to Bryce Canyon via one of the many scenic byways available to people not in a hurry.
Within the next hundred miles, we gain nearly 8000 feet of elevation and lose just over 40 degrees of temperature. Not too far after the summit at 9910 feet above sea level, Lake Navajo, in the picture above, perches placidly in the rich, dry 71-degree air.
Within 50 miles of Lake Navajo, we encounter the hoodoo-topped red rocks in the pictures below. This topographical diversity is all part of the Dixie National Forest, so named not out of geographical confusion, but because Mormons in the late 1800s sent some of their number to this part of southern Utah to grow cotton.
Our home for the night is Bryce Canyon Lodge, a historical landmark inside the park that was built by the Union Pacific Railroad early in the 20th century. We wander, somewhat breathlessly inasmuch as we are now at a lung-draining 8500 feet, surrounded by 6-million year old rock formations. The pink cliffs of the Wasatch formation date back to the Cenozoic Era, the time when mammals first appeared on earth.
More on all that tomorrow. For tonight, content after a dinner of salad and grilled red trout, we walk to the lip of the canyon and watch the sun set behind the alternating soft siltstone and hard limestone layers that millions of years of rain, ice and snow have eroded into fantastical pinnacles, walls, and arches. It is strange to think that sunsets were already old-hat billions of years before these ancient rocks existed.