Monday, July 14, 2008

Day 1-Las Vegas to Capitol Reef National Park (Torrey, Utah)

(This and the next few posts (that is, the posts on top of this one) are a travelogue. We're on the road with very limited access to the Internet - mountains, you know - so I'll post what I'm writing whenever I can.)

We covered 500 of the most glorious miles imaginable today – and that’s only horizontally speaking. Vertically speaking, we went from 2000 feet up to 9600 feet and then back down to around 6800 feet. Meteorologically speaking, we went from 109 degrees with no humidity to 60 degrees and a downpour, including five minutes of pea-sized hail. (We tried to remember the last time we were in a rainstorm that lasted for well over 30 minutes – no luck. It was at least a year ago. And as for hail, haven’t seen that since we moved away from Chicago in 2005.)

In an amazing 40-mile stretch of Utah 12 north of Bryce Canyon, the topography goes within less than 20 minutes (and via a sensational series of those breathtaking mountain road switchbacks) from spiky ferrite-rich (aka deep orange-red) sandstone hoodoos to rolling high-altitude plains dense with emerald green pines and tall, thin, ramrod straight trunks of pure white birch (or is it aspen? poplar? I’m no botanist) clustered together like massive stands of gigantic drinking straws. We see sheer 1000-foot drops, wind-carved caves, black and tan and white cattle grazing in lush green meadows 9,000 feet in the air, and dainty deer calmly grazing by the side of the road. The deer look up as we drive by, as if to murmur “Just snacking here. Go on about your business,” their expressions patient, humorous, inquisitive and indulgent.

There’s one scenic overlook about 20 miles south of Torrey where the entire high basin is set out before you. Black mountains, whitewashed limestone shorter mountains speckled with smallish shrubbery, more swaths of striated orange sandstone topped with whimsical knobs and spikes, and a gorgeous reservoir of blue water sparkling in the resurgent sun. A helpful sign informs visitors that the black mountains in the distance are the Henry Mountains, and that the state of Connecticut or the country of Luxembourg (for European visitors, I guess) would fit easily into the space before our eyes. And the silence is preternatural, prehistoric, an absence of sound that is itself a sound, serene and beautiful. It’s a marvel.

As is Zion National Park, a desert setting created, ironically enough, entirely by water. Water forms up on the Colorado Plateau and rushes downward, through Bryce Canyon, to Zion, then on to the Grand Canyon – successive rungs in what is called the Grand Staircase. We’ve been studying geology in preparation for this trip and the spectacular scenery, which would be fabulous enough if we knew nothing of its origins, is even more spectacular armed with our rudimentary knowledge. With a majestic and gorgeous eloquence, the topography makes manifest the power and the inexorability of time and the forces of nature. Give water and wind and heat and pressure enough time and they will build a glory like Zion or Bryce, then reduce it to rubble, then build something else equally fabulous and extraordinary. All without thought or will, consciousness or purpose.

Our eyes full, we find our way back to more mundane delights, like dinner. The Capitol Reef Inn boasts a cafĂ© with surprisingly good food – local, organic and fresh. Lots of vegetables, which is too often a luxury on a road trip. The Ten-Vegetable Salad has the promised 10 vegetables, not counting the lettuce or the cabbage in its base and, wonderfully, not including onions (which I hate): zucchini, squash, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, red pepper, green pepper, carrots, tomatoes and sprouts. And they all taste as if they were picked earlier this afternoon. Glorious.

(Pictures, especially those taken with one's cell phone, are such a weak representation of nature's glory, but I'll post a few anyway. They're certainly better than nothing, and they are reminiscent, if not representative.)

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