Sunday, January 1, 2012

I Can't Breathe From Gasping At So Much Grandeur

I am awestruck. I was utterly unprepared for how beautiful Utah is. A damn sight better than their sign would have you believe, that's for sure.

We left early (for me) this morning from Flagstaff and headed toward the Grand Canyon. I heard it was something I should see while in this part of the country... and while I agree it is remarkable and bigger than words can describe, it didn't move me the way the rest of the day would.

There were some unexpected parts of the canyon landscape... for instance, I didn't expect it to be as hard to see across as it actually is.

Let me explain... UV light causes a particular type of haze during mid-day that makes it impossible to see far away terrestrial objects without a film of purplish haze over everything. This is the reason distant mountain ranges always look purple-gray. The other side of the Grand Canyon is so far away that it is hazy and hard to refine with your eyesight. I also didn't expect the south rim to appear abruptly in a forest. You're driving through trees on twisty roads and all of the sudden - BAM - canyon.

I'd like to be moved by the vast wonder of the Grand Canyon, but for me, it was just a huge hole in the ground. I probably would have enjoyed hiking down and beholding the canyon from its floor... but winter was in my way. In fact, there were many parts of the canyon still covered in snow and the surrounding forest floor is still white.

The most entertaining parts of the Grand Canyon visit involved some humongous brazen birds that were stalking us like prey.

We ventured on toward Utah by way of Page, Arizona... a small town on the shores of stunning Lake Powell.

Had this trip been 3 months instead of a couple weeks, this destination would have been on the list. Some gut-wrenching curves in the road and roller coaster-style vistas off each side later, we found ourselves descending into a valley surrounded by mountains and beautiful sandstone canyons. Lake Powell itself is a jewel against the red backdrop of the Glen Canyon area. We stopped and had lunch here, above the dam.

As we left Page, and Arizona behind, I suddenly had the feeling we were heading toward a place I didn't know much about... but that would be unforgettable.

The landscape changes drastically from the barren red rocks of northern Arizona and washes out into massive pale cliff faces in southern Utah. I'm sure this must be what parts of Mars look like. No trees, no vegetation but scrub... nothing to detract from the buttes so big they hid frozen rivers in 60-degree weather.

In fact, as I found, this is the norm in Utah. As we crossed the state westward, the features evolved from blonde hills to sharp red steppes, canyons and dunes. I was fully entertained by the changing backdrop, as we ventured into stranger and stranger territory. I felt as if I were on another planet... no houses, no exits, no lights, just rock and brush against the sky.

I don't plan much, but there were a few goals on this trip... one to see Sedona, which we did earlier in the week. Another, to hike Coyote Buttes North to 'the wave' here in Utah. My haphazard research made me think this hike was actually in Zion National Park, so we booked their New Year's Eve package with intentions to hike New Year's Day to the wave. It's apparently a little more complicated than that and we'll have to get up really early to finagle, but in my carelessness, I landed us in one of the most surreal places on Earth I've ever seen.

I'm really not sure it is on Earth, since the terrain is so foreign and bizarre. We drove through the park just before sunset, descending a good 2,000 feet to the base of the canyon, where the sunset and all other light is obscured by the titanic cliffs around us.

Around the switchbacks and tunnels of Zion's road, we wound west toward the lodge, where we are now... and the strangest thing happens here... if the moon is out, the shadows of the canyon walls are like gigantic monsters looming over the base of the canyon, reflecting an ink-black shadow at us, obscuring the stars.

We're even accompanied by some alien wildlife, like this trio... don't look directly into the big one's eyes, he'll turn your brains into mashed potatoes.

Again, if the goal for this trip was to feel small, mission undoubtedly accomplished. Tomorrow, hiking southern Utah and relaxing in the shadow of the chasm we're in. Happy birthday to my brother, Patrick, and happy new year to everyone... I'm looking forward to starting it off in this extra-terrestrial part of the world.

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