What Makes a Man To Wander

“Add a bundle of firewood.” I told the Navajo guy through a plexiglass barrier. I’d stopped at a gas station in Kayenta after a five and a half hour drive from Phoenix. The campsite I’d reserved had a fire-pit, but I wasn’t sure what the wood collecting situation was going to be. He added it to the water and coffee and mumbled through his mask to grab one on the way out. I put the logs in the back of my Element and headed north toward Monument Valley.

Goulding’s Lodge, you may remember from the special features on the John Wayne boxset you bought your Dad for Christmas, is where director John Ford set up base camp on the many classic westerns he shot in the area. It sits on the Utah side of the Arizona-Utah border across from Monument Valley and now includes a full amenities campground and RV park.

I checked in at the main office. The clerk pointed me to a spot on the back side of the lodge. It was nestled near a fenced off embankment and some large cliffs framed the iconic buttes in the distance. An old guy with a Harley was set up in the space next to me. I opened the back of my Element and started to unpack. My space, it turns out, didn’t have an actual fire-pit, just one of the those raised charcoal stoves used for birthday parties at the park when I was a kid. Maybe I’d read the website wrong.

The ground was hard and I bent up a stake trying to pound it in with a rock. This was my first time setting up this particular tent and when the wind started to blow the whole situation degenerated into a Buster Keaton gag. A guy from two spots down came over to help. He’d just arrived with his girlfriend and was kind enough to save me from what would have been another forty minutes of struggle. With the tent secure, I unloaded the rest of my stuff, checked out the sun and decided there was time to explore.

All of the parks on Navajo land were closed due to Covid (I knew this going in). The tribe had been hit hard by the pandemic and their decision to keep outsiders away made sense. I wanted to see if there were any views accessible from the main road, but soon ran into a road block declaring “local traffic only.” Given the current situation, it seemed best to respect the sign. As the sun set I took some pictures of the surrounding area and knew I’d have to make a proper trip back to this place. Another adventure for another time.

I returned to my campsite to find someone had taken my parking spot, or rather, I’d taken theirs and they’d taken it back while I was gone. I parked in my proper space, set up my folding chair and looked out over the valley as the sun disappeared behind me. The guy next had built up his fire (he had a real pit) and was playing “Wish You Were Here” through small speaker on repeat. I considered going to talk to him, but decided to enjoy the solitude while mooching off his fire’s residual glow. I’d save my bundle for the next night.

On the Road Once More

My neighbor rose well before the sun, packed up his campsite and left, waking up everyone up in the process because you can’t leave quietly on a Harley. The previous night had been uneventful save for seeing what looked like a kit fox, but was probably one of the stray cats I’d noticed skulking around the lodge. I tried to snag another hour of sleep, but eventually gave up. There was more exploring to do. I packed my stuff, took a shower and hit the road.

Heading north on U.S. 163 from Monument Valley the scenery is so incredible they’ve built vehicle pull-outs every couple miles so people don’t stack up on the shoulder trying to take pictures. The most famous is around mile marker 13. The travel websites call it “Gump Hill” because it’s where Forrest Gump in the movie Forrest Gump decides to finally stop running. You’ve seen this place a thousand times, and I, like everyone else, wanted to take that picture too. It’s trickier than you might think. First, you have to frame out the shadows of all the other cars who’ve stopped. There’s a lot of them, and they really ruin the open-road vibe. Second is the through-traffic. They don’t care about your picture and would probably run you over if it wouldn’t slow them down on the way to wherever they were in such a hurry to be. The third challenge is a small, but annoying group of people who’ve stopped at the mile marker but don’t care about taking pictures. They’re content wandering down the hill with their friends completely oblivious to the life and limb you’re risking to capture this iconic piece of Americana. It’s worth it though, because at least but not limited to, twenty-two of your closest friends and family will tap a little digital heart on their phone temporarily reassuring you that someone in the universe cares about you.

There was one more landmark I wanted to see during this phase of the trip. Mexican Hat (that’s American for Sombrero), is a tall skinny geologic formation with a wide flat top that looks suspiciously like someone ripped it off for the Cars Ride in Disney’s California Adventure. It’s worth a stop if you’re in the area. Beyond that were towns named Bluff and Blanding, and eventually Canyonlands National Park, home to, among other things, James Franco’s amputated arm. Lots to explore, but I kept moving. I had places to be.

Abbey’s Arches

When the writer Edward Abbey died he instructed his wife to zip his body in a sleeping bag, put him in the back of a pick-up truck and bury him somewhere in the southern Arizona desert. They marked the grave with a simple rock headstone and didn’t tell anyone where it was. In college, I made a short film about a hiker searching for the grave who runs into a mysterious old man and they discuss some of Abbey’s controversial ideas. The final reveal being it was Abbey’s ghost all along. My short film wasn’t very good, but Abbey’s book Desert Solitaire, about his time as a seasonal park ranger in what was then Arches National Monument, planted the seed for this trip.

I arrived in Moab, Utah around lunch, stopping at a local grocery store to use the bathroom. I grabbed coffee and a breakfast sandwich from the in-store Starbucks, figuring it’s always best to support local businesses. In Abbey’s book, he paints Moab as a sleepy backwater filled with jack Mormons, lonely cowboys and Department of Defense Uranium prospectors, lamenting what he saw as the regions inevitable decline into a hub of industrial tourism. He wasn’t wrong. The traffic and construction reminded me of LA, and the amount of time it took to get from one end of town to the other would have made Abbey roll over in whatever’s left of his sleeping-bag. To be fair though, his books are a big part of why people come here, and if he really wanted to keep it a secret, he should have kept it to himself.

Eventually, I made it to the entrance of Arches, paid my fee and started up the hill. One  of my favorite things about U.S. National Parks is their flair for the dramatic. If you’ve ever driven in from the north end of Yosemite to see the valley and Bridal Veil Falls, or hiked down Bright Angel trail after exploring the Mary Colter buildings on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon you know what I mean. Arches doesn’t disappoint. As I turned the corner and the expanse opened up, I found myself agreeing with Ken Burns. They really are America’s best idea. I pulled off on a scenic overlook to figure out my plan for the day, noticing then I was out of gas. Deciding it was better not to get stuck somewhere without cell service, I drove back down the hill, out of the park, passed a Uranium mine, through the construction to a gas station where I filled up my tank. Rinse and repeat. Better safe than sorry.

Back in the park, my first stop was Delicate Arch. Probably the most famous of the Arches, you’ve seen it in all the Utah tourism ads and on earlier iterations of their license plate. From lower view point however, the arch looks a lot like the eye of a needle camels seem to have such a problem with. The upper view point allows closer inspection, but requires more of an excursion. I was only there for the day and didn’t plan on making any substantial hikes so I went back to my car a little annoyed and figured out where to head next. I should have done more planning, but the whole purpose of this trip was exploration. You don’t know what you don’t know and I wanted to chart the territory myself.

Next was Skyline Arch, a minor arch, it’s a short walk down a small path to a good view. I’ve spent a large chunk of my life in the desert. There’s something comforting about it. Something that makes sense to me. I love the mountains and forests. I love the beach. I’m sure the prairie is great, but for me it’s the desert. And here on this this little path I reconnected with that. I don’t think I could have articulated it in the moment, but I was starting to understand the purpose of this trip.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we all inhabit a story. Our minds, for good and bad, are constantly searching for coherence in the randomness of the universe. Historically people used religion to solidify the narrative, but as the power of the rational mind became more apparent, the west turned largely to philosophy and science, and then to nationalism and ideology. Now we’re using politics and group identity. All seem like dead ends.

Nietzsche’s recommended solution is for each individual to use the force of will to form their own values and become über-men. Carl Jung suggested we pay attention to the way our unconscious minds were processing the world through the analysis of dreams, projections and synchronicities so we could better understand the story we’re in. Jordan Peterson told us to clean our room. They all have a point, but I tend to lean towards Viktor Frankl. We should figure out what we find meaningful, then act it out in the world. This is harder than it sounds. Our egos, fears, traumas and rationalizations do their damnedest to get in the way. The accuser is strong and ruthless honesty with ourselves is the only way forward. It’s the only way to connect with who we are. It’s how we manifest the Tao. It’s how the logos becomes flesh.

After visiting a few more arches, my favorite being Double Arch which you may remember from the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade starring River Phoenix, I decided it was time to find a place to camp. Given the sheer number of campgrounds in the surrounding area, I didn’t foresee that being a problem.

This Darkness Got to Give

Historically, the Colorado River began near the confluence of the Grand River and the Green River in what is now Canyonlands National Park. In 1921 the Grand River was renamed and become part of the Colorado River after a Colorado Congressman decided the Grand River wasn’t sexy enough and wanted to cash in on the Colorado’s fame. That’s why it’s Grand Junction, Colorado and not Colorado Junction, Colorado. To confuse things even more, the Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon, but the Grand River originates in Colorado neither of which are near each other. It may have been vanity, but the at least the renaming tied things together.

I explain this because I was driving along the now Colorado River, staring up at the sheer red rock cliffs and thinking about what cojones it must have taken for John Wesley Powell and his expedition to traverse such rugged terrain. The only problem was, he came down the Green River to the Colorado. Not the Grand. So his expedition wasn’t actually on this part of the river. I own the book. I should have read it beforehand.

Didn’t matter though. I was channelling his spirit and I was going to find a camping spot. Apparently so was everyone else. All of campgrounds were at full capacity and as the sun sank I started to worry. Surely there was an empty spot somewhere. And and then I found one. Two actually. They were in the Big Bend campground on the Colorado a little outside of Moab. I pulled in, checked the site number post and found a reservation tag on it. It was almost dark. They must have left I figured. A young couple pulled into the spot next to me. They had the same reasoning. I paid my fee. Pulled out my tent and started to set up. I was excited to use the firewood from the day before. Then shit. Two large travel vans full of elderly Chinese-American tourists pulled up. We were were in their spots.

The young couple and I talked to an older couple who was in charge of the group. They were very nice and recommended a free campsite north of the Arches entrance. The young couple asked if I wanted to stick with them while looking for another spot. I decided it was best to continue on my own. I’d figure something out.

The campsite north of Arches was free, but the spaces were ill-defined and most of the people camping there were in RV’s. No one had a campfire. Maybe I’ve watched too much TV, but all I could picture was waking up to a few of Jesse Pinkman’s buddies shaking me down for all the trail mix and bottled water I had in my car. I decided to head back to Moab, get some coffee and regroup.

An hour to the north was the town of Green River (named after the river, not the Creedence song). They had a few campgrounds and motels and maybe I could find a place to crash for the night. The town was sleepy, the KOA office was closed and the motels didn’t look worth what they were charging. I pulled into a Love’s Service Station, bought some water and decided to rest a little in their parking lot. The lot was bright and I was the only one trying to sleep. I decided to hit the road again after getting a few odd looks. Near the entrance to I-70, I saw a sign that said “No Services 126 miles.”

This was the darkest part of the trip. Literally and figuratively. First, there were almost no other cars. A few trucks now and then, but not much else. Secondly, there was nothing out there. No lights. No farmhouses. I’m not even sure what the terrain looked like because all I could see was a big black abyss I assumed was filled with mountains ands trees and the ghosts of settlers past. Third, the podcast I was listening to involved a very well-known podcast host recounting a deep childhood trauma. Nothing like exploring your own darkness vicariously through someone else’s. The cherry though, was that in the middle of this drive I turned 36 years old. It’s not 40, or even 30, but also not nothing. Pretty sure it’s the same age Don Draper was when he had his mid-life crisis.

I did, however, have time to reflect, take stock. To dig into past hurt, shame, anger, and sadness. To confront the general frustration of life and try to figure out what the next phase will be.

A little north of Cedar City, after stopping at another gas station and a couple rest stops, I was able to snag a few solid hours of sleep. I rose again with the sun, tired, but not exhausted. Somewhere in there I booked a Best Western for the last night of my trip.

By the Rivers of Babylon

There’s a small throw-away paragraph in Desert Solitaire about building a two-lane road through the Kolob area in the northern part of Zion National Park. Abbey was concerned about it spoiling the park’s last bit of virgin wilderness. This was some time in the late fifties.

I tend to agree. Cars are terrible. They suck in the city, and they suck in the wilderness. They are great on the highway, or at least used to be when the aesthetics were better, but we’re all aware of the downsides now. The main entrance for Zion is in the town of Springdale, Utah about 40 miles from Kolob and a perfect example of Abbey’s concern.

Zion’s parking lot fills up quickly so they encourage you to leave your car in town and take a shuttle into the park. As you can imagine, the pandemic complicated this greatly. Most of Zion is inaccessible by car (they took Abbey’s advice.) It too required a shuttle, but you to purchase tickets a day early or wait till after 3:00 pm because they were running at half capacity. Needless to say my exploration of the park was limited. I did get to drive through a WPA era tunnel that takes you to the taffy-textured eastern side of the park, which is pretty astounding in its own right.

It didn’t matter though, because while driving earlier that morning I noticed a sign for the Kolob Canyons. I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t remember Abbey’s paragraph until rereading it after my trip. I had stumbled upon the two way road he was concerned about. I drove through the hills just as the sun was cresting the giant rock mountains. It formed beams of light in the dewey morning air. It may have been better to hike this, but I was glad I found it when I did. The last five years haven’t been easy. There’s a lot to write about, most of which will have to wait for another time. But on that morning, with those mountains, looking at the beams of light, I felt a little moment of grace.

The Party Never Ends

I don’t know if I believe in “God” (big G) the way I used to, but I do believe the people who were writing about Him were trying to capture something. I believe people told stories and those stories, through imagery and verse, attempt to articulate something about the essence of reality. I believe time sifts through those stories and the ones that best express the ineffable stick around and are puzzled over by generation after generation. This trip was about trying to reconnect with that. The ineffable. About trying to understand my place in the family of things, as Mary Oliver puts it.

To be fair, the trip didn’t solve any of my problems. There wasn’t a bolt of lightning or a lifting of the scales. I’m nowhere near Damascus and I’m still not sure what’s next (hence the Lost Highway Man). But I do know moments like this are out there. I know there’s a lot left to see and a lot more to write about.

The last night on my trip, I checked into a Best Western in St. George, Utah. The receptionist was a lady in her mid-fifties, and she was about as nice as a customer service person can be. I had a beer and ate some Mexican food at the restaurant next door, then hung out by myself in the motel jacuzzi. I even downloaded some dating apps and set up a few COVID friendly dates for when I returned to Los Angeles. The next morning I grabbed some continental breakfast and headed home. Back to California and back to reality.

I still have a bundle of firewood in the back of my Element.